Concussions and Sports: How Many Head Injuries Are Too Many?

Oct 18 • 2018
Concussions and Sports: How Many Head Injuries Are Too Many?

How to recognize and avoid concussions in sports?

Concussions, or mild traumatic brain injuries, affect athletes from Little League to the Olympics. While head injuries happen in a variety of ways—such as car accidents, physical assaults and falls—the risks from sports-related concussions cannot be ignored.

Research estimates up to 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States every year. It is not known how many athletes play through head injuries in game after game; many athletes dismiss their symptoms—and risk developing a degenerative brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

While multiple concussions can result in permanent disabilities, including neurological damage, most people who sustain one or two concussions make a full recovery. It’s important for athletes, coaches and parents to learn more about concussions, including symptoms and tips, to help prevent sports-related head injuries.

What are concussion symptoms?

Athletes who experience a blow to the head may complain of symptoms that point to a concussion. Typically, concussions leave athletes feeling confused, dizzy, sleepy or forgetful. Other concussion symptoms include headache, fatigue, blackout, amnesia, disorientation and nausea.

To ensure a safe recovery, it’s important to monitor an injured athlete for concussion signs and symptoms after the injury and during the days or weeks following the incident.

“A normal concussion should resolve in about 10 to 12 days,” said Dr. Sunita Jain, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Baptist Memorial Health Care. “During this time, we typically monitor patients and advise on proper nutrition and hydration to avoid new or worsening symptoms.”

In addition to eating right and drinking enough fluids, Jain said concussion patients need sleep and rest from mental stimulation.

“There’s a protocol we follow in terms of rest,” said Jain. “If the patient is a student, we recommend rest from academics as well as athletics, and we give specific guidelines for screen time, including computers, TV, video games and phones. Screens add additional stress to the brain as it recovers.”

How many concussions are too many?

Many parents and athletes live by the three-strike rule when it comes to retiring from a sport due to multiple concussions. Experts suggest whether an athlete should resume activity following a concussion varies by individual and the severity of the concussion. A person who has suffered three concussions in a year is different from someone who has suffered three concussions over a 10-year period.

“It really depends on the type and severity of the concussions and the amount of time it took a patient to recover from each,” said Jain. “You could experience one severe concussion and discontinue playing contact sports, or you could have several minor concussions and recover completely.”

While many doctors strongly recommend an athlete take a time out if he or she experiences three concussions in one year, they will discuss several factors with an athlete first, such as recovery progress, length of time between concussions and whether the person has issues completing daily routines or school work.

When is it safe to return to a sport?

Return-to-play guidelines vary by the severity of a head injury. Athletes who experience a cut or bump often return to their sport as soon as their injury heals. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a graduated return-to-play protocol for players who suffer concussion symptoms, such as migraine headaches, loss of consciousness or confusion. Individuals who experience severe traumatic brain injuries with bleeding in the brain may be able to resume their sport after several months if a neurologist indicates there is no brain damage.

Athletes who continue to play sports after suffering a concussion risk repeat injuries and a longer recovery time. According to Jain, repeat injuries can lead to long-term issues, such as difficulty solving problems, memory issues, mood disorders and learning disabilities. It’s important for players to communicate with their doctor about new symptoms or an inability to resume a normal, daily routine.

How can athletes avoid concussions?

Retiring from a sport is the only way to completely avoid sports-related concussions. For many athletes and people who enjoy being active, quitting a sport can be devastating. Luckily, athletes, coaches and sports governing bodies work hard to create safe environments, enforce rules and encourage concussion reporting.

To lessen the risk of a sports-related concussion for you or your child, limit illegal tackling and helmet-to-helmet contact, avoid hitting another athlete in the head and ensure all equipment is suitable for play. By learning concussion signs and symptoms and adhering to an action plan on the playing field, athletes can reduce their chances of having a traumatic brain injury.

To learn about concussion care at Baptist, visit the Baptist & Semmes-Murphey Concussion Center, the only multidisciplinary concussion center in the Mid-South, or find a doctor by visiting our Find a Physician page.