Hit ‘Til it Hurts

The Golden Gaels varsity football team. (Source: Jeff Chan)

By Alison Rockley

 

Head injuries have recently become one of the most discussed issues when it comes to sports. This is rightfully so, because it has been found that it takes just one brutal blow to the skull to decrease a person’s longevity, both mentally and physically.

In the 2011 NHL season, with a total of 82 games, there were at least 90 serious head injuries reported; likewise, the 2011 NFL season reported a whopping 162 head injuries. William Moodie, Sci ’14, is a defensive lineman for the Queen’s University varsity football team. He says that Queen’s is seeing a similar trend. “By the time you get to the university level, there are not many players that have not suffered from a head injury or concussion,” he said.

Lately, high profile injuries to star players, such as Sidney Crosby, have caused fans and players alike to urge leagues to re-evaluate the rules regarding hits to the head. However, despite increased preventative measures, it’s not always enough to prevent a concussion from occurring.

A concussion is a form of brain injury caused by an impact or shake to the head. Generally, it’s a simple injury to attain, and yet the consequences may be very severe. The human brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid, both of which are encased by a hard skull of bone. The cerebrospinal fluid acts as a cushion that can serve as protection in cases of light trauma. However, with a more severe impact, the fluid may not absorb the entire impact created by the force, causing the brain to bang into the skull. A major rotational force then moves the brain, disrupting activity in the midbrain and diencephalon (lobes involved with such things as motor function, vision and the involuntary nervous system), causing the effects of concussions.

The majority of concussions occur without a loss of consciousness, but there are many symptoms that can indicate head trauma has occurred. The severity of the injury is dependent on several factors, including the force with which the head is hit, as well as if the brain has already sustained injury in the past. Some people are able to recover from a mild concussion within a couple of hours and they may simply have a feeling of being dazed, confused, or having a headache. In more serious cases, concussions can cause long-term problems that affect physical, emotional and cognitive functions, and they may experience temporary or permanent memory loss.

During the post-hit diagnosis process, doctors ask patients a variety of questions to test the patient’s cognitive ability.  In more severe cases a CT scan or MRI may be required in order to ensure the brain is not bruised or bleeding. Treatment for head trauma typically involves plenty of cognitive and physical rest.

Unfortunately, people who have had concussions have a much higher chance of getting another one, especially if there are still lingering symptoms from the previous head trauma. This is because concussions cause chemical changes in the brain, including a possible decrease in the neurotransmitters that pass on chemical signals. This leaves the brain chemistry unbalanced and as a result, reactions to stimuli and behaviours may change.  Furthermore, these chemical changes make a person more susceptible to injury.

Multiple concussions can also greatly increase a person’s risk for degenerative brain issues later in life. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is one such progressive brain disease; it occurs as a result of accumulated tau proteins  post-concussion and is expressed through symptoms of aggression, memory loss and depression. Unfortunately, it is most often diagnosed post-mortem.

The main way to protect the head from injury in contact sports, such as football and hockey, is by wearing a helmet. Helmet sales have increased greatly over the past couple years, attributed to an increase in comfort and protection.  A typical helmet is believed to disperse approximately 75% of the force of a blow to the head.  They generally contain a layer of foam, and when the head is hit the foam crushes, lessening the force, as well as increasing the head’s stopping time. In cases of severe impact, helmets may not be sufficient enough to absorb enough force to stop the brain from hitting the skull.

With an increased awareness of the severity and high occurrence of head injuries, many ex-athletes are promoting the safety of players. For example, famed hockey player Mark Messier, who sustained multiple head injuries throughout his career, and has started the Messier Project, aimed to reduce concussion rates though public awareness as well as product development.  With the NHL implementing new rules about head shots and fighting, and the NFL cracking down on helmet-to-helmet hits, professional sporting leagues are taking steps towards decreasing the head injury rates.

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