The brains of athletes not diagnosed with concussions still show damage.
With all the attention being paid to concussions, particularly among professional football players and military personnel returning from combat, experts are reporting they could be missing the forest for all the big trees.
That forest, mostly made up of undiagnosed micro concussions, may be just as dangerous over time as the “big trees,” diagnosed concussions, in your young athlete.
Patrick Bellgowan figured he had made a mistake when the results of brain scans from a group of 25 players came in, he told Sports on Earth. Bellgowan is a scientist at the University of Tulsa's Laureate Institute for Brain Research.
Even with no history of reported concussions a group of 25 players had hippocampuses that were, on average, 14 percent smaller than those of a control group. (The hippocampus is an area deep inside your brain that helps regulate emotional control and memory formation.) The control group comprised 25 males of similar age and health who didn't play contact sports.
In addition, the hipppocampuses of a second group of 25 players who had at least one diagnosed concussion, was, on average, 25 percent smaller than the control group. This was a larger difference in volume than what other scientists had seen.
The Sports on Earth report noted that that the big concern was that the results “reflect a larger scientific trend” that could impact your child playing any contact sport.
“A growing body of evidence suggests that both concussions and subconcussive blows can alter mood, cognition and behavior while causing damage and structural changes to the brain,” the report said. This, even while research focuses on severe blows to the head known to cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). (CTE is long-term damage to the brain, often from multiple concussions, that can lead to dementia occurring earlier and faster than usual.)
“In other words, contact sports may be worse for your cognitive health than previously assumed, even if you don't ultimately end up in a dementia ward,” the report said.
Researchers have used imaging techniques that have found brain damage in female high school soccer players who head the ball more than 1,000 times a year. At the same time, a single impact is rarely enough to cause a concussion, so it’s the build up of blows that matters.
Researchers also have found that professionals who do the most heading perform worse on cognitive tests than those who don’t head the ball as much.
"Given that a lot of these questions are just starting to be looked at, we don't really have a good idea of what the risk is," Anne Sereno, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, told the Chicago Tribune. She used iPad tests to gauge the impact of practice headers. "But I think the studies coming out, mine included, suggest that there are risks."
A report on Prezi has called for longitudinal study of athletes over the course of their careers to help show if “micro concussions have an impact on cognitive functions.”
“A micro concussion can occur any time your body experiences a contact force that causes the head or neck area to jerk,” the report says. “Micro concussions aren't noticeable like big hits to the head where people could assume a possible concussion has occurred.
“A single micro concussion is not likely to have the same effects as a concussion, but multiple micro concussions over a small window of time can certainly lead to a full blown concussion.”
The moral of the story is that even if your child isn’t diagnosed with a concussion that may obviously cause damage, he could be subjected to hundreds of undiagnosed micro concussions that could end up having the same effect in the long run.
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA