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A Heads-Up Warning on Concussion

High School Athletes Vulnerable to Cumulative Effects

WebMD Health News

Oct. 30, 2002 -- Each year, more than 64,000 high school athletes in the U.S. suffer a concussion while playing sports, including one in five football players. And with each incidence, they may be more susceptible to injuries from even mild future hits, suggests a new study.

Researchers found that concussion appears to have an additive effect on injured high school athletes, with the greatest risk to players who had have at least three jarring injuries to their brains. Those athletes were nine times more likely than other athletes to have symptoms of concussion.

"Preliminary data suggests that the developing brains of high school athletes are more vulnerable to concussion than a more mature brain," says lead researcher Micky Collins, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Medicine Concussion Program. "Concussion is a very common injury on the high school level, but the issue is generally given little attention and is not well understood."

For instance, many people don't realize that loss of consciousness is not necessarily the only symptom of a concussion. "Headache, dizziness, personality changes, difficulty with memory, or feeling foggy, distracted, or fatigued are all subtle symptoms," Collins tells WebMD. "Parents need to be aware of these subtle symptoms in the days following a suspected concussion. If a high school athlete who had a concussion is returned to play while still recovering, that's when you're going down a road you don't want to."

Generally, he says, most athletes who suffer an initial concussion can completely recover as long as they don't return to contact sports too soon.

His study examined data on 88 athletes -- most of them football players -- in five states and compared the severity of symptoms after a new concussion in athletes with and without a history of prior concussions. Athletes with three or more prior concussions were 9 times more likely to have at least three of the four symptoms typically associated with concussion. These symptoms include loss of consciousness, inability to recall events that occurred before the injury, inability to recall events after the injury, and confusion.

"The study indicates for the first time in the high school athlete population that prior concussions may indeed lower the threshold for subsequent concussions injury and increase symptoms severity," Collins says in a news release.

The long-term effects have not been studied, but multiple concussions may increase later risk of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other conditions affecting brain function, Collins says.

Collins' study, which he says is the first published report on the outcomes of concussions among high school athletes, appears in the November issue of the journal Neurosurgery.

"While football poses the greatest risk, concussion also frequently occurs among high school athletes playing soccer, wrestling, and basketball," he tells WebMD.

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