Children's Hospital Colorado

Do Concussions Lead to More Serious Injury?

A football player tackles the player with the ball.A recent study released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) examined a sample of over 3400 retired NFL players and found that a very small but disproportionate number of these players have died from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Media and some scientists have questioned whether concussions or subconcussive blows could be to blame for these unfortunate findings.

What do we make of these findings about retired NFL players?

Although the findings are of concern, several points about the study are worth remembering. The study did not collect information on concussion history so whether concussions play a causal role in these problems remains unclear. The study was also based entirely on professional athletes.

Something unique to these players could help to explain the findings (i.e. participation in football for several decades, steroid/substance abuse) so whether these findings can be applied to youth who play football for a relatively short period of time or to youth who sustain isolated concussions remains unclear. It must also be remembered that youth sports like are associated with innumerable benefits including improved physical health, psychosocial well-being, and even better school performance. Thus, decisions to restrict young athletes from any organized sport need to be made very thoughtfully. Learn more about concussions and their relation to emotional and social issues in young athletes.

What do we know about concussions in the long-term?

Considerable research has now demonstrated that most athletes who sustain a single sports-related concussion recover within a couple of weeks of their injury. Younger children might take slightly longer to recover but still generally recover well. We do know that having one concussion puts an individual at greater risk for having future concussions and possibly for having a longer recovery period after future injuries. Therefore, multiple injuries in any athlete needs to be considered carefully.

So what can we do to protect our young football players?

One of our roles at the Children’s Hospital Colorado Concussion Program is to educate patients, families, and the community about concussion. Knowing the facts about concussions is important because misinformation can cause injuries to be minimized in certain cases or cause unnecessary alarm or worry in others. Learn how to recognize the symptoms of a concussion.

A child’s brain is different than an adult brain because it is still actively developing. Here at Children’s Colorado’s Concussion Program, we take a comprehensive, thoughtful, and research-based approach to concussion evaluation and treatment. Evaluations are individualized to each athlete, avoiding simplistic formulas or an easy approach. When recovery is not proceeding as quickly as might be expected, state of the art neuroimaging and evaluation by specialists (i.e. sports medicine physicians, neuropsychologists, rehabilitation physicians) with particular expertise in concussion provide invaluable information to guide treatment. Our scientific expertise and the high volume of patients seen each year makes Children’s Colorado the most knowledgeable and experienced concussion team focused on children and teens in the Rocky Mountain region, and among the very best in the country.

Find out if high-tech helmets prevent concussions.

Download a concussion guide for coaches.

Written by: Children’s Colorado’s Neuropsychologists Drs. David Baker and Michael Kirkwood.