Employee & Community Health

FAQs about concussion in sports

1/4/2016 by Dr. David Soma

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Concussion from sports. It's in the news a lot. University of Minnesota doctors have called for the end of youth football; a host of players at all levels and across a variety of contact sports have had their careers ended due to the effects of concussion. And now, Will Smith is starring in a feature film about long-term damage from sports-related concussions. 

But children also can get a concussion in their daily activities - riding a bike, skating, snowboarding, skateboarding, playing at the playground or in the backyard - not just during contact sports such as wrestling, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and rugby. There's still not enough evidence that the risks of sports outweigh their benefits

To address some of these issues, let me share with you questions I'm frequently asked by patients and parents: 

Q: What is a concussion?

A: A concussion is a brain injury that results in certain symptoms and signs. It's not a bruise to the brain, a fracture or anything you can see with imaging like an MRI, CT or x-ray. It's usually caused by a blow to the head or body that causes the head to whip back and forth sharply.

Q: How do you know if someone has a concussion? 

A: Because the injury isn't visible, concussion is recognized by how the person functions. It may affect them in the following ways: 

  • Physical: headaches, nausea, dizziness
  • Mental: difficulty concentrating, focus, memory
  • Mood: sad, angry
  • Sleep/energy: fatigue, more sleeping, but also having trouble falling asleep

If you're concerned that someone has a concussion, they should be evaluated promptly by a medical provider. Not all concussions need to be seen in the Emergency Department, unless there's a particularly severe injury. Reasons for taking a patient to the ED include: 

  • Not being able to rouse them
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Extreme headache
  • Multiple episodes of vomiting
  • Unable to move a limb or other function problems

Q: Should I let me child play sports, particularly football?

A: If they're interested in playing, if they'd enjoy the activity and are physically and developmentally ready, let them participate. The key is to ensure that when they play, they play as safely as possible, no matter what sport they choose. 

Q: How many concussions are too many?

A: There's no magic number of concussions that would automatically disqualify an athlete. We now consider the trend in their concussions: are they more severe, are they lasting longer, is the threshold of impact getting less to cause concussion? If an athlete is allowed to fully recover after a concussion, the effects tend to be short-lived. 

Q: Are concussions happening more often now?

A: I don't think they're more common, but we're better educated and aware of concussions, so they're being recognized - and reported - more frequently. Today players are bigger and faster, but there are rules and precautions protecting them that help decrease the risk of concussion. 

Q: In the movie "Concussion," Will Smith has chronic encephalopathy. What is that? 

A: Chronic encephalopathy is a very controversial condition thought to be caused by cumulative head trauma, resulting in neurologic disease like depression, poor memory and Alzheimer's. However, we don't really know if the dots connect. We do know that repetitive head trauma causes brain changes, but we don't know how they affect individuals long-term. Learn more about chronic encephalopathy on the Mayo Clinic website. 

Dr. David Soma is a pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. He serves as the volunteer team physician for the Mayo High School football team and provides education and guidance on medical issues for the Rochester Youth Football Association (RYFA).