Concussion risk lurks in the Super Bowl – and in every other sport | Professional

Over the past two decades, researchers have gained great knowledge of concussion risk, some of which has led to sweeping policy changes. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sports via Getty Images

An estimated 90-100 million Americans will tune in to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. This sobering but significant side note is unlikely to be mentioned during the festivities: athletes who participate in collision sports are among those higher risk of concussion.

This risk is not limited to professional football. The researchers believe that 4 million concussions related to sports and recreation occur in the United States every year, in all sports and at all levels of play and in games and practices. They happen to athletes and kids who play basketball and soccer and weekend warriors who ride bikes and skis. But thousands of concussions also result from car accidents, slips and trips, or other blows to the head.

I did some research brain damage for almost a quarter of a century. Around the world, hundreds of other researchers like me have dedicated their careers to understanding concussions and traumatic brain injuries – and, more importantly, preventing and treating them. Although considerable progress has been made, much remains to be done.

People also read…

How dangerous are concussions? The answer is complicated.

The backstory

When I started my career, concussions were widely considered “ringing the bell”. It was not uncommon for an athlete who had been knocked out to be sent back to a game within 20 minutes of the injury.

The devastating results of repeated concussions without proper treatment led to the adoption of radical legislation focusing specifically on concussions in young people.

This legislation, enacted between 2009 and 2014, has the force of law in all 50 states. Although it varies from state to state, young athletes now receive annual concussion training. People suspected of having a concussion should be removed from play, and concussed athletes may not play their sport until cleared by a medical professional.

In 2005, researchers discovered the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a former professional football athlete. Degenerative brain disease is characterized by protein deposits that have been linked to concussions and repeated impacts to the head.

This monumental discovery occurred at the same time as the American military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. For both conflicts, head trauma became the signature injury returning veterans, and the U.S. government has increased funding to study the short- and long-term effects of concussions.

In addition, sports organizations reversed their previous position and recognized the link between concussions and long-term injuries. They began to support policies that adopted evidence-based rule changes to reduce concussion risk.


Even young athletes can suffer concussions when playing contact sports such as football, basketball and soccer. Bob Thomas / The Image Bank via Getty Images

A Golden Age of Concussion Research

These events laid the foundation for a new generation of scientists to explore accurate ways to diagnose concussions, develop new treatment options, and understand who is most at risk for long-term negative outcomes.

This includes three transformative studies currently underway in the United States: TRACK-TBIwhich assesses 3,000 patients across the spectrum of traumatic brain injury; NFL-LONG, which tracks former NFL players; and the CARE Consortiumwhich has recruited more than 55,000 military service academy members and collegiate athletes to better understand the short- and long-term effects of concussions.

The CARE Consortium, which I co-lead, has produced over 100 peer-reviewed articles that have contributed to global improvements in the diagnosis and management of concussions. Notably, we reported that recovery after concussion can take up to a month. We also found that both male and female athletes return to play after a concussion at the same pace and identified blood markers which could eventually serve as a gold standard for diagnosing concussion.

My colleagues and I are now beginning follow-up assessments of CARE Consortium participants to better understand the long-term effects of injury. These findings, along with work from other studies, will inform researchers about the risk of long-term neurodegeneration and shed light on ways to intervene with medications and therapies.

The future

Concussion research is flourishing. Since the first modern case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy was identified 17 years ago, more than 13,000 articles have been published in the medical literature. Although researchers still have much to learn, the advances made in concussion care over the past 20 years are clearly significant. Concussed athletes are now kept out of the playing field much longernormalized assessment protocols are widespread and the rules are in place to reduce the risk of concussion.

The findings of these studies will never make headlines the way the Super Bowl does, and some may argue that policy changes should arrive faster. Granted, the scientific process is slow, but decisions based on limited research are rarely, if ever, the right decision. But one day, this largely unrecognized work will keep the sport safe and its participants healthy in body and mind.

Steven P. Broglio has current or past research funding from the National Institutes of Health; Centers for Control and Prevention of Disasters; Department of Defense – United States Medical Research Acquisition Activity, National Collegiate Athletic Association; Foundation of the National Association of Athletic Trainers; National Football League/Under Armour/GE; Simbex; and Elmind A. He is a co-author of Biomechanics of Injury (3rd edition, Human Kinetics) and he has consulted for US Soccer (paid), US Cycling (unpaid), medical-legal litigation, and received speaker fees and travel reimbursements for lectures given. He is co-author of “Biomechanics of Injury (3rd edition)” and has a patent pending on “Brain Metabolism Monitoring Through CCO Measurements Using All-Fiber-Integrated Super-Continuum Source” (US Application No. 17/164,490)

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license.

Comments are closed.