Link Between Sports Injuries, Brain Damage

Many athletes at risk of developing deadly, lifelong health problems

Seattle personal injuryInjuries are a part of sports. Every fan and every athlete knows that. But in far too many cases, that understanding has given rise to a culture where the long-term dangers of many injuries are ignored. Athletes are taught to “shake it off” and push through injuries in order to get back in the game as quickly as possible, even when doing so is detrimental to their health.

This attitude is extremely dangerous when it’s applied to head and brain injuries, such as concussions.

In recent years, concussions have been in the news largely because of several high-profile cases involving professional football players. But the dangers of concussions go far beyond football. Nearly every sport or recreational activity carries with it some risk of a head injury, and because there is still much to learn about the way the brain responds to trauma, every case needs to be handled with care and support – not the cavalier attitude that is so prevalent in sports.

Winter sports can put athletes in dangerous position

Many sports can be dangerous. This time of year, the risk of a head injury involving winter action sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, can become elevated. That’s why it’s important for skiers and snowboarders to be more aware of the risks of a serious head injury.

But far too many winter athletes aren’t aware of the dangers sometimes associated with their sport. And awareness of head injuries involving skiers and snowboarders has lagged behind other sports, according to a recent article about concussion awareness among winter action sports athletes.

Winter athletes often lack the support of a team or league that is at least ostensibly looking out for their best interests. In sports that don’t draw a great deal of media attention, unlike the “Big Four” of baseball, basketball, football and hockey, competition is intense because very few successful athletes are ever rewarded. The consequences of missing even a single event due to a head injury can be career-threatening, and too many athletes feel as though they have to ignore their injuries and press forward.

Compounding the problem is that the consequences of brain injury are so complex and affect every victim differently. Much research has shown that repeated blows to the head can cause a progressive, degenerative condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), with debilitating symptoms such as depression, dementia, insomnia and memory loss. But because those cumulative impacts only permanently affect a minority of the population – and there is no way of knowing which athletes are at risk – it’s easy for symptoms to be ignored or overlooked.

Treatment, care for brain injuries still evolving

Plenty of progress has been made in recent years in terms of effectively treating sports concussions, but there is still much to be done. For instance, the current standard of care recommends strict rest until concussion symptoms completely disappear. But new research, as the Seattle Times reports, suggests that resuming light physical activity, such as walking or swimming, may actually help to avoid lingering symptoms – the authors speculate that this may be due to increased blood flow to the brain.

At the same time, it remains critically important to remove the athlete from the sport or activity that caused the initial concussion until cleared to return by a doctor. This is due to the danger of second impact syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly condition that involves rapid and catastrophic swelling of the brain. In Washington, young athletes are protected from second impact syndrome by the Zackery Lystedt Law, which our law firm was involved in creating. Similar laws have since been enacted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

What is clear is that every brain injury is unique, and that means every injured athlete needs to be treated with care and caution. Two people who sustain exactly the same injury may have completely different symptoms. The best practice is to take every concussion seriously, exercise caution, encourage athletes to come forward with their injuries and never tell an injured person that he or she is “faking it” or needs to “shake it off.”

We owe it to athletes, especially young athletes, to do better.