Employee & Community Health

FAQs: Concussion in sports

10/2/2017 by Dr. David Soma

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Concussions from sports. They're in the news a lot. There is constant media attention surrounding concussions, bringing up many questions from patients and parents. We commonly hear about concussion in sports like football, but it can happen in virtually any sport ranging from tennis to wrestling. It also can occur in basic youth activities such as bike riding, skateboarding or playing at the playground or in the backyard. 

To address some of these issues, let me share my answers to 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 typically results in impaired function of an individual. It's not a bruise to the brain, a fracture or anything you can see with traditional imaging like an MRI, CT or x-ray. 

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, loss of focus, memory loss
  • Emotional: sad, irritable
  • Sleep/energy: fatigue, alteration in how much you sleep and ability to fall 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 (ED), unless there's a particularly severe injury. Contact your health care team if you have concerns. Reasons for taking a patient to the ED include: 

  • Excessive sleepiness or not being able to wake them or keep them alert
  • Extreme headache
  • Multiple episodes of vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness, especially for prolonged periods

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

A: Sports provide significant value to children, and if they're interested in playing, I would strongly consider letting them play. Each child is different, but when they 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: Are concussions happening more often now?

A: This is a tough question but I don't feel they are more common now, but that we are better educated and more aware of concussions. Today's players are bigger and faster, which may be a factor, but sports are safer now than they have ever been in regards to concussions. 

Q: What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that I hear about in retired NFL football players?

A: Chronic encephalopathy describes changes found in the brain often seen in those with repeated head trauma. It can be diagnosed only by an autopsy after death. What these changes represent is very controversial. Some people are concerned that repeated head trauma may result in neurologic diseases similar to what is seen in depression, dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. However, many NFL players or individuals with repeated head trauma likely have changes in their brain and don't develop any of those neurologic conditions. 

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. 

You can also view the segment of #AsktheMayoMom where host Dr. Angela Mattke and I discuss concussion and other sports injuries in young athletes. 

Dr. David Soma is a pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). 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).