Amateur Boxers Risk Brain Injury
Jan. 27, 2000 (Atlanta) -- A new study suggests that, from a medical
perspective, the recent hit movie Fight Club might accurately have been
called "Concussion Club" instead. That's because researchers have found
evidence of traumatic brain injury in a group of amateur boxers in the
Netherlands, despite the use of protective headgear.
The study, which is published in the latest issue of The Physician and
Sportsmedicine, compared the mental function of 38 amateur boxers, before
and after a bout, with that of 28 amateur boxers who did nothing but hit a
Overall, the group that boxed scored lower on tests of planning, attention,
and memory -- but similar to the non-boxing group on tests examining how fast
they could process information and pay attention. But the researchers found
that the intensity of individual boxing matches did affect results. For
example, "impact" -- a factor of weight and number of punches --
reduced scores on a visual short-term memory test, while knockouts (KOs) and
technical knockouts (TKOs) were associated with a decline on a verbal memory
While only 13% of the fights ended in a KO or TKO, the researchers say that
blows to the head were common -- with 35% of competitors getting punched in the
head more than 10 times during a match. They conclude that amateur boxing is
thus a potentially dangerous sport, because of the risk of acute traumatic
brain injury (ATBI).
But the news isn't all bad for boxers, according to one of the study's
authors. "The take-home message is that you can have some subtle cognitive
impairment with amateur boxing," co-author Barry D. Jordan, MD, director of
the Traumatic Brain Injury Program at Burke Hospital in White Plains, N.Y.,
tells WebMD. "However, I think, as with most types of concussions you see
in sports, these are self-limiting." Jordan does say, however, that amateur
boxers who get a concussion shouldn't fight again without proper medical
He also tells WebMD that the study confirms the long-held notion that
"protective" headgear -- when it comes to boxing -- is a misnomer.
According to Jordan, the gear does nothing to stop "rotational
acceleration," the injury that occurs when the head rotates to the side
after a blow.
"Overall, I would say the study fits nicely into the growing body of
literature that says amateur sports can be dangerous," says David Burke,
MD, director of the Inpatient Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program at Spaulding
Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. "You would expect that of boxing, where
the intent is to hurt the brain." Burke reviewed the study for WebMD.
What's surprising, Burke says, is the finding that such a small number of
head blows (the median number in the study was 8) affected mental function. He
says it leaves amateur boxers with a question: "Is this sport worth some
brain damage to you? If you say yes, then how much is too much? When it
interferes with your ability to function at a high-level job ... or to meet
your basic needs? I think, if posed with that question, very few people would
move beyond that first tier," he tells WebMD.