Many High School and College Athletes Risk Brain Damage

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 8, 1999 (Seattle) -- High school and college athletes often suffer head injuries on the field that can hurt their performance in the classroom, according to research published in the Sept. 8 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In an issue of the journal devoted to sports-related brain injuries, researchers presented evidence that shows collisions violent enough to leave an athlete dazed may also cause that athlete to develop short-term problems remembering things or thinking quickly. The researchers found that permanent brain damage can result from repeated blows to the head, even if they do not knock an athlete unconscious.

Football players are most likely to sustain a brain injury, according to the researchers. But they found that wrestlers and female soccer players are also at risk.

Brain damage can occur any time a player suffers a concussion, which is a blow to the head severe enough to cause disorientation or to slow reaction time, says Mark Lovell, PhD, a researcher at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. In an interview with WebMD, Lovell says, "The things that a concussion affects are concentration, memory, the ability to make rapid decisions -- all the things that you generally need within the classroom."

Lovell was part of a group that studied the mental functioning of 393 college football players. He says about a third of the players had sustained one concussion and a fifth had sustained two or more. A battery of mental functioning tests showed that players who'd had at least two concussions were less able to remember things and took longer than other players to process information.

The mental deficits were not large, Lovell says, but clearly showed that "if somebody is having problems with multiple concussions it very much could affect their ability to function on a day-to-day basis."

In another study, researchers from Med Sports Systems in Iowa City, Iowa, reported that high school football players were at least three times as likely as other high school athletes to suffer a concussion. Med Sports Systems sells sports injury information systems to schools and co-sponsored the study.

The Iowa researchers analyzed information collected by coaches on 1,218 athletes who suffered concussions. The researchers found that nearly two-thirds of these concussions occurred in football players. Wrestling was the next most risky activity, followed by girls' soccer, girls' basketball, boys' soccer, and boys' basketball.

John Powell, PhD, tells WebMD that the study shows that a wide range of young athletes are at risk for significant head injuries caused by collisions during competition. "While we think of football as being collision-oriented, we forget that soccer players and volleyball players also collide," says Powell.

Powell, who is now a member of the faculty at the University of Michigan, says that in the past coaches, trainers, and even doctors have assumed that head injuries that don't cause unconsciousness are unlikely to create any long-term problems. But he says it's now clear that "these injuries can become serious if left unattended."

Lovell tells WebMD that some brain injuries are inevitable in contact sports. But he says proper training in tackling technique, for example, can reduce the chance of injury. He also says physicians and coaches should order mental functioning tests for athletes who suffer even mild head injuries so that any long-term damage can be spotted early.

That position gets strong support from James P. Kelly, MD, a researcher at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He writes in an editorial accompanying the studies that doctors who care for athletes need to "develop a better appreciation of the consequences of concussion."

The study on college athletes was supported in part by grants from the Arthur J. Rooney Foundation and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan.

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