Brain injuries a concern for athletes

DOVER — With spring sports now in full swing, players, coaches and parents should get up to date with information about brain injuries, especially since March is Brain Injury Awareness Month.

The most common brain injury seen, especially in sports, is a concussion. Concussions are caused by a blow or trauma to the head. The trauma results in stretching or microscopic tearing of brain cells causing damage.

The most common symptoms of a concussion are headaches, light and sound sensitivity, nausea and vomiting but more severe concussions can result in loss of consciousness.

For coaches and parents to recognize the symptoms of a concussion, they should quiz the individual on basic facts like the score of the game, the opposing team, events leading to the injury and time remaining. They should take note of clumsy movement or slow response time.

Although the symptoms of a concussion are rather broad, Dr. James Mills, a neurosurgeon at Bayhealth, said the most important one to look for is a loss of consciousness (which is estimated to happen in only 10 percent of cases).

“If someone receives a blow or injury to the head and loses consciousness, you need to take them to see a health-care professional because that indicates definite damage,” he said.

Although concussions or traumatic brain injuries are a big topic in major league sports like the NFL, they are becoming an increasingly high concern in youth athletics as well.

According to, a non-profit brain injury awareness organization, one-third of all sports concussions occur during practice and 47 percent of all concussions are suffered by high school football players.

In an effort to improve awareness and treatment of these cases in youth athletics, Delaware passed a bill in September 2011 for brain injuries to be taken more seriously within the Delaware Interscholastic Athletics Association.

The law requires the DIAA to provide information to coaches, players and parents about concussions. Also included is a requirement allowing a player who received a brain injury to resume play only after being cleared by a licensed health-care professional.

Dr. Mills said athletes are cleared to return to activity once all symptoms are gone, response/reaction times return to the individual’s baseline and balance as well has cognitive function have returned to normal.

If a player is returned to their sport too soon they not only have delayed reaction times, making a second injury more likely, if the individual does sustain anotherbrain injury, they are at higher risk for long-term damage.

“We’ve always known about longterm damage because we’ve seen it from boxers for years,” Dr. Mills said. “Athletes like boxers who receive multiple brain injuries are very likely to have cognitive problems later in life but more and more research has been focused on this topic in recent years.”

Some of the long-term results of repeated brain injuries include cognitive disorders, emotional disorders, personality changes, physical disabilities and even early onset dementia.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly 1.7 million Americans suffer brain injuries each year, and an estimated 5.3 million Americans live with a long-term disability related to those injuries.

For athletes, sports helmets are good way to reduce brain injuries but do not guarantee protection. Their main function is to reduce the impact of a blow to the head and are only effective if fitted properly.

“You want a helmet with a tight fit that doesn’t allow it to rattle around on the head,” Dr. Mills said. “Also, a lot of helmets for school sports are used for more than one season so when you get one, you want to make sure it fits properly, there are no cracks and after a blow, make sure that no cracks were caused.”

As more players, coaches and parents become informed about brain injuries and prevention, the goal is for more young people to be protected from additional injuries and longterm damage. More information about brain injuries can be found at

If you have questions about a brain injury or possible brain injury, visit or call the Bayhealth Concussion Center at 526-1470.

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