UW News

January 17, 2013

Early signals warn of prolonged sports concussion symptoms

UW Health Sciences and UW Medicine

Researchers have found clear, identifiable factors that signal whether an athlete will experience concussive symptoms beyond one week.

A blow to the head can result in a  concussion, a condition in which the brain fails to function normally.

The researchers sought to identify risk factors for prolonged concussion symptoms by examining a large national database of high school athletes’ injuries. Previous concussion studies were limited in scope, focusing only on male football players. The information from this study applies to male and female athletes from a number of different sports.

The concussion research looked at variety of sports, not just football, and included both male and female athletes.Robert Merkel

Researchers found that athletes who have four or more symptoms at initial injury were more likely to have persistent concussive symptoms. Drowsiness, concentration difficulties, nausea and sensitivity to light and noise were also associated with longer-lasting concussive symptoms. Because concussions tend to be a common occurrence in football, researchers compared data from football players to other sports, and found that risk factors were different for football and non-football-related concussion.

The results of this study could change how long high school athletes are kept from returning to play after a concussion. Previously, athletes who lost consciousness were held out from playing longer than those who did not lose consciousness, but the study found little correlation between loss of consciousness and persistent symptoms.

Dr. Sara P. D. Chrisman, an adolescent medicine fellow in the University of Washington Department of Pediatrics, headed the study. She said, “The medical community is becoming more aware that concussions may not be a minor injury and may result in prolonged symptoms. This is a step towards developing evidence-based return to play guidelines.”

The study was carried out with the help of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center and published by Brain Injury. The study was supported by the Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award.

In related news, several UW Medicine sports injury experts were among the co-authors of a position statement on sports concussions released this week from the American Society of Sports Medicine. They are Drs. Kimberly Harmon, Jonathan Drezner, and Stan Herring.

The statement offers evidence-based best practices to assist physicians in evaluating athletes for possible sports concussions, and summarizes knowledge gaps and areas requiring additional research.