Blows to the Brain
By Griffin Cipriani
Concussions in high school athletics is spiraling out of control. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates more than 300,000 sports-related concussions occur each year in the United States alone. There has also been a 16% increase in concussions from 1997-1998 to 2007-2008, according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Kaiser doctor Michael Harris described a concussion as a type of injury to your brain caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works. Harris added that concussions can also occur from a blow to the body that causes the head to move rapidly back and forth. This can create chemical changes in the brain, sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells. These traumatic brain injuries can also cause internal bleeding and in extreme cases, even death. The recovery can last as little as a few weeks or as long as a year. Even then, there may never be full recovery. Even a mild bump, often called a "ding," or "getting your bell rung," can cause a concussion.
There seems to be an increasing amount of concussions occurring in high school sports, despite the recent fall in popularity for contact sports. This is likely due to how little we know about concussions and what we are currently finding out. According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, concussions occur more often in contact sports, with football accounting for more than 60% of them. This makes male contact sports the most susceptible to concussions. About one-third of teens who play contact sports have diagnosed concussion symptoms. This is not counting all of the undiagnosed ones.
According to National Public Radio, about one-fifth of teens reported having a concussion and nearly 6% said they have had more than one. The reason these numbers may be much higher is that only about 10 to 20 percent may have symptoms. These symptoms include but are not limited to headaches, fatigue, trouble sleeping, blurry or double vision, slurred speech, sensitivity to light or noise, nausea, dizziness, memory loss, becoming foggy or zoned out, difficulty paying attention, or even acting more emotional than normal.
According to the website HeadCase, concussions are occurring in many minimal or non-contact sports as well. For example, soccer players that head the ball are three times as likely to suffer a concussion. According to Harris, the most concussions occur in football, followed by boys lacrosse and girls soccer. Also, there are rising concussion rates in volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, gymnastics, and baseball as listed in the HeadCase article.
Novato High junior Jake Dillon has had two diagnosed concussions from lacrosse and one diagnosed concussion from football, followed by two self-diagnosed from football.
“It has played a major role in my school because it hurts to do certain things like read or study or to simply be mentally present,” said Dillon. “It is always a long recovery to get back to 100 percent, and with every concussion there is an increased chance that the next can be significantly worse than the other, so you really have to be careful about your head because it can really affect your life and how you perform in school.”
Another problem with concussions is that because most of them go unnoticed, there is a heightened risk for Second Impact Syndrome. This a rare condition that occurs when a person is recovering from a concussion and gets another one while the first is not fully healed. This can cause rapid brain swelling and catastrophic results. Some symptoms are dilated pupils, loss of eye movement, unconscious, respiratory failure, death, or just previous symptoms becoming significantly worse. In many cases, this can turn fatal within minutes if there is severe brain bleeding or hemorrhaging.
“The more concussions someone gets, the longer it takes to recover and the more chance that someone will be left with chronic headaches, learning or memory problems, or even chronic depression,” said Harris.
Currently, the methods of diagnosing concussions consist of CT scans and doctors opinions. A CT scan is like an x-ray for your brain. It maps your brain tissue and can sometimes pick up where is might be swollen or disturbed. CT scans are not the best way to find concussions because they expose the patient to high levels of radiation and don’t always pick up everything.
“In most cases, damage to the brain from a concussion cannot be seen in tests such as a CT or MRI scan,” said Harris.
Unfortunately, there is no single definitive test. There's a test being studied that looks at biochemical markers that can be picked up in saliva to help determine whether someone has had a concussion. This is still being investigated, so it is not yet licensed for use.
The problem with opinions is that they may vary between doctors and they can never be completely certain. These may not sound reassuring and that is because they aren’t, which makes concussions so dangerous. But, not all hope is lost.
There has been breakthrough research on a way to detect concussions with a simple blood test. Looking at the metabolites in your blood, doctors can search for distinct patterns that indicate a concussion has occurred. This new method has a success rate that exceeds 90 percent.
It is better to play it safe than sorry when dealing with a possible concussion. According to a Mayfield Brain and Spine article, if you lose consciousness it is recommended that you seek immediate medical attention. Doctors recommend avoiding physical activity until all symptoms have completely cleared, and only resuming any type of contact sport once comfort with physical activity returns. Even then, it is not a bad idea to take another week or two off in order to ensure that you are healthy again.
Dr. Harris explained that, “you have an entire life ahead of you, and you only get one brain!”