Concussion risk looms during the Super Bowl.


Concussion risk looms during the Super Bowl.

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Approximately 90 million to 100 million Americans are expected to tune in for the Super Bowl this Sunday, but amid the excitement, a less celebratory fact looms large: athletes engaged in collision sports face a significant risk of concussions.

This risk extends beyond professional football, touching various sports, and all levels of play, whether in practice sessions or actual games. It’s not just athletes on the field; even individuals enjoying recreational activities such as basketball, soccer, cycling, or skiing are not immune to the risk. Furthermore, thousands of concussions occur due to unfortunate incidents like car accidents, falls, and other head injuries.

As the Director of the University of Michigan Concussion Center with nearly 25 years of research experience in brain injuries, I’ve seen the evolution of our understanding of concussions. In the past, concussions were often brushed off as merely “getting your bell rung,” and athletes who suffered such injuries were sometimes sent back into the game within minutes.

The consequences of repeated concussions without proper treatment prompted the enactment of comprehensive legislation addressing youth sports concussions. These laws, implemented between 2009 and 2014, are now in effect across all 50 states. They require youth athletes to undergo annual concussion education, mandate the immediate removal of any player suspected of a concussion, and prohibit concussed athletes from returning to the field until medically cleared.

In 2005, a groundbreaking discovery was made when researchers identified the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a former professional football player. CTE, a degenerative brain disease characterized by protein deposits linked to concussions and repetitive head injuries, caught the world’s attention.

Around the same time, the U.S. military was heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, where traumatic brain injuries became the signature injury for returning veterans. The U.S. government increased funding for research on the short- and long-term effects of concussions.

Sports organizations also shifted their stance, acknowledging the link between concussions and long-term harm. They began supporting evidence-based rule changes to minimize concussion risk.

This marked the golden age of concussion research, with new scientists delving into precise ways to diagnose concussions, develop innovative treatments, and identify individuals at the highest risk of adverse long-term outcomes. Three pivotal studies are currently ongoing in the U.S.: TRACK-TBI, evaluating 3,000 patients across the traumatic brain injury spectrum; NFL-LONG, tracking former NFL players; and the CARE Consortium, which has enrolled over 55,000 military service academy members and college athletes to enhance our understanding of short- and long-term concussion effects.

The CARE Consortium, which I co-lead, has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers, contributing to overall improvements in concussion diagnosis and management. Notably, we revealed that recovery from a concussion may take up to one month, that male and female athletes return to play at similar rates, and we identified blood-based markers that may become the gold standard for concussion diagnosis.

Now, my colleagues and I are launching follow-up evaluations of CARE Consortium participants to gain deeper insights into the long-term effects of injuries. These findings, along with research from other studies, will guide researchers in assessing the risk of long-term neurodegeneration and identifying potential interventions with medications and therapies.

Concussion research is flourishing. Since the first modern case of CTE was identified 17 years ago, over 13,000 papers have been published in medical literature. Although there is still much to learn, the advances in concussion care over the past two decades are undeniably significant. Concussed athletes now spend more time off the field, standardized assessment procedures are widely adopted, and rules are in place to reduce concussion risks.

While these findings may not make headlines like the Super Bowl, they play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of sports and preserving the well-being of its participants, both physically and mentally.


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