What Is a Sports Concussion and How Does It Affect the Brain?

Sports players are more likely than others to receive head injuries, including concussion. Until recently, however, it was thought that concussions were not much more than a minor ding — something to brush off as soon as the symptoms subsided.

Today, we know much more about the way concussion affects the brain, and unfortunately, the long-term consequences can be devastating. While most doctors and healthcare providers still consider concussions to be a type of mild traumatic brain injury, we now understand that even the slightest concussion can result in detrimental effects down the line.

What Is a Sports Concussion?

Concussions are a type of mild traumatic brain injury or MTBI. They can happen in almost any setting — from car accidents to slips and falls. A sports concussion, by definition, is a concussion that occurs while playing sports.

Most concussions occur because of a direct blow, jolt, or bump to the head. In the majority of cases, the injury is not life-threatening. However, the immediate symptoms associated with concussion can be incapacitating — sometimes, for up to a year.

All concussions are different, but in general, these are the signs and short-term symptoms to look out for:

  • Loss of consciousness (even if only for a brief time)
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Headache and overall head pressure
  • Issues with balance
  • Feelings of dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • A stunned or dazed appearance
  • Clumsy movements
  • Looking and feeling groggy and sluggish
  • Inability to recall what happened directly before and/or after the injury
  • General changes in behaviour, mood, or personality
  • Slowness when answering questions
  • Overall confusion
  • Trouble with overall memory
  • Sensitivity to noises and lights

What Sports Are Most Likely to Cause Concussions?

Concussions are more common than many people think, and they occur often in sports. In particular, contact sports tend to cause the most concussions in players, with sports like football and rugby having the highest incidence rate. Of course, concussions can occur in any sport. A severe fall in horse racing or polo or a dive gone wrong in swimming are just as likely to result in serious concussion as a collision in rugby or football.

What Happens in the Brain When You Get a Sports Concussion?

Concussions are the result of the head being rapidly and abruptly jostled — usually from an instrument blow, a collision with another person or object, a hard fall, or another such shock.

Our brains and skulls are designed to handle slight shoves and bumps. But one as severe as what occurs with a concussion can actually cause the brain to bounce back-and-forth and twist inside the skull. In turn, this can damage and/or stretch the brain cells. It can also result in chemical changes to the brain, which will increase sensitivity to further stimulation or injury until the brain has healed.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of a Sports Concussion?

Long-term, sports concussions can cause serious, life-threatening effects. Signs of these effects may not be apparent until years after the initial injury or injuries. Most importantly, those who play sports — especially contact sports — should be aware that long-term, concussions can cause a brain disease called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

CTE is a progressive disease that is characterised by memory loss, permanent changes to personality (depression, irritability, anxiety, aggression, suicidal ideation, apathy, and challenges with multi-tasking and planning), taste and smell dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

With the recently discovered knowledge that CTE is a serious threat to those who experience concussion, it is critical that athletes, coaches, and parents of young players know and understand the signs and symptoms of this injury. The long-term effects of CTE must also be made known to these groups as the risk of concussion and the resulting effects may change some individuals’ decisions to play certain sports.

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