According to the most recent statistics by the Brain Trauma Foundation roughly 2.5million people suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year. Furthermore, more than 80,000 of these individuals incur permanent disability due to TBI, and roughly 50,000 die as a result of their injury. In fact, TBI is the leading cause of death and disability for the general population between 1 and 44 years of age.
Drawing upon data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports that roughly 10 percent of TBIs in the American population occur during competitive sports events or recreational athletic activities. The TBI problem is even more pronounced among children and adolescent athletes in the US, as sports and recreational activities precipitate more than 21 percent of all TBIs in this youth demographic.
An umbrella term, TBI applies to any head injury that arises from a blunt impact or physical penetration of the head and ultimately disrupts the normal function of the brain. Particularly serious TBI cases can result in coma or immediate death.
In the world of athletics, the most common types of TBI include sports concussion, SIS, and CTE. The symptoms associated with each of these sports related head injuries can be mild, moderate, or severe depending on the extent of brain damage incurred.
A common problem in both contact and non-contact athletics, sports concussion arises from a shaking the brain against the walls of the skull. When it is severe enough, a concussion can result in shearing injuries to the neurons and nerve fibers of the brain. Symptoms of sports concussion range from a complete loss of consciousness to functional cognitive disturbances and enduring dysfunction of mental capacities. Sport related concussion commonly occur in the wake of a direct blow to the head, face, neck. An impulsive blow to another part of the body can also cause a concussion when the force of that blow is transmitted to the head.
SIS (Second Impact Syndrome)
Second impact syndrome can occur as an athlete is recovering from a sports concussion. A repeat injury, SIS arises when an individual suffers a second concussion while healing from a former concussion. The brain swelling and intracranial pressure, associated with SIS is generally acute, difficult to ameliorate, and can ultimately prove deadly. Boxing, rugby, football, American football, and hockey subject participants to a particularly high risk of SIS.
CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)
A degenerative disease associated with repeated past head injuries, chronic traumatic encephalopathy is particularly common among athletes who play contact sports. Typically arising gradually over a period of years, symptoms of CTE include memory problems, learning disabilities, a loss of inhibition, and mental illnesses that range from depression and anxiety to suicidal ideation. Advanced cases of CTE may result in progressive dementia and motor system disorders. Quoting a 2017 Boston University research study, the AANS reported that 87 percent of deceased football players’ brains showed signs of CTE.
While competing in sports or engaging in athletic activity, people of all ages can suffer anything from a mild scalp contusion to severe bleeding in the brain. Responsible parties should examine all head injuries to assess their severity and determine if they may have resulted in a TBI. All potential TBIs warrant immediate medical attention because they can lead directly to disability and even death. It is also important to realize that recurrent minor impacts, such as those commonly sustained in athletic activities, can cause significant cumulative damage and result in serious health conditions.