When Those Friday Night Lights Start to Spin or Grow Dim

Concussions are in the news again... here's why

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Ever feel like you’re being hit over the head with news about concussions? That’s because there's been a recent spate of breakthroughs and discoveries in terms of medical research -- some of which is downright alarming.

Oh yeah, and it’s football season.

Sadly for a lot of parents with players for sons, concussions are a rightful, major concern. Even some players who have never been diagnosed with a concussion are shown to suffer changes in brain function because of blows and hits and tackles taken for the team. Because these players don’t exhibit any classic symptoms of head injury, they continue to play – and get hit.

Thomas Talavage, an expert in functional neuroimaging and co-director of the Purdue MRI Facility, said the key finding of his recent research is a previously “undiscovered category of cognitive impairment,” suggesting some athletes might be suffering from an injury that’s difficult to diagnose.

The Purdue team screened and monitored 21 players at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Ind., and determined cognitive impairment in players who hadn't been diagnosed with concussions based on brain-imaging scans and cognitive tests. Although these players didn’t display typical concussion symptoms, such as losing consciousness and trouble walking and speaking, “our data clearly indicate significant impairment,” Leverenz said.

Interest in concussions has even piqued in Washington, D.C. A House Committee recently held a hearing to determine with how best to protect young athletes after a college player with a degenerative brain disease (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE -- normally associated with much older players) committed suicide.

Symptoms of CTE – termed the football concussion “disease of the moment” – include depression, erratic behavior and eventually dementia. The disease also physically mimics the deadly amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in progressive muscle weakness and wasting.

News on the concussion front isn’t confined to high school and college sports of course. According to a recent study in Sports Health, National Football League (NFL) players are taking longer time away from the field after suffering concussions than they used to. From 1996-2001, players spent an average of 1.92 days off the field after a concussion. That number increased to more than 4 days, on average, in 2002-2007. The study’s authors say there are a number of explanations for this increase, including more players who are willing to report symptoms to medical staff and an overall more cautious approach to concussion management, among other reasons.

If you have a son on the football field this season, it’s good to keep a watchful eye out for signs of concussion and other head injuries. Headaches, drowsiness and memory loss are also symptoms. Uneven pupil sizes are another tell-tale sign something is amiss.

If a child or young adult loses consciousness due to a blow, he or she should not play sports for a period of three months.

Review Date: 
October 14, 2010