Each year, approximately 50,000 people die from a severe injury to the head or brain. Cases of traumatic brain injuries are often attributable to intensive contact sports that expose players to bodily collisions with objects and other persons. More than 300,000 cases of sports-related brain injuries are recorded annually within the United States, with concussions being the most prominent type of head trauma.
Brain injuries may also result from skull fractures, contusions, and injury to the blood vessels within the head. Extreme and intense sports, such as football, ice hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball, skiing, or boxing, bear a much greater risk for accidents resulting in traumatic brain injury than other, non-contact sports.
In contact sports, brain injuries often occur as a result of falls, blows to the head, impact with equipment, and other forms of trauma.
Symptoms of brain injuries
Mild brain trauma and injuries may alter the mental state and manifest with dizziness, confusion, headaches, blurred vision, nausea, imbalance, vomiting, lethargy, fatigue, and ultimately unconsciousness. Individuals sustaining a severe brain injury during a sporting event may suffer symptoms similar to those of mild brain trauma, as well as agitation, slurred speech, weakness in the extremities, loss of coordination, inability to awaken from sleep, convulsions, seizures, dilation of the pupils, or drainage from the ears or nose.
Types of brain injuries
There are different types of injuries that the brain may sustain during intense sports upon impact to the head, including concussions, contusions, and skull fractures. A concussion is a closed head injury that may result in bruising of the brain and changes in or loss of consciousness.
A contusion is also a closed head injury that leads to bruising, swelling, or bleeding of the brain. A skull fracture is characterized by an actual open skull wound that causes a break in one of the cranial bones. Healthy cranial bones are rather robust and will only break when a tremendous amount of force is applied. A fracture of the skull may damage vital parts of the cranium, including blood vessels, membranes, or the brain and bring about neurological damage. Cranial fractures may also introduce infection to the underlying structures.
Risks for subsequent brain injuries
Individuals who have suffered a traumatic brain injury previously are at increased risk for subsequent brain injuries. Multiple events of traumatic brain injury over time, even if they are mild in nature, can severely disrupt neurological and cognitive function. Repeated mild or traumatic brain injuries that occur in sequence within a few weeks, days, or hours, known as second impact syndrome, bear a great fatality risk. The compound effect of multiple brain injuries may lead to severe swelling and bruising of the brain and elevated intracranial pressure. When a subsequent brain injury is sustained before the first injury had adequate time to heal, vascular congestion may occur as a result of damaged brain cells and compromised vessels that lower cerebral blood flow. Insufficient blood circulation may then lead to a dangerously altered chemical brain environment and ultimately the death of brain cells. Second impact syndrome can be common in most contact sports.
Brain injuries can have detrimental effects on neurological function and may even result in death. Therefore, preventative measures should always be taken to protect the skull and its underlying structures from possible injury during intense sporting events. When engaging in contact sports, protective head gear should be worn at all times. However, if trauma to the head is sustained in any way, it is important to see a medical professional immediately and receive thorough examination to rule out serious complications.
Shannon Lee advocates for safer high school sport oversight in Denver. Shannon works with a Denver Chiropractor to better understand sports injuries and treatment.