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Recurrent concussions linked to depression

With football season heading into full-throttle, it’s time to consider the lasting effects of a common injury — concussions. New research shows people who suffer multiple concussions have a higher risk of clinical depression.

This news should turn the heads of many people. Anybody who receives a blow to the head, as in a car accident or fall, may sustain a concussion. But athletes in contact sports such as football or hockey are more likely than the average person to experience multiple concussions. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, an estimated 1.2 million Americans participate in organized football each year and 10%–20% of these players may suffer from this mild brain injury. And one concussion seems to render individuals more susceptible to sustaining additional concussions in the future.

While most people recover from concussions, a few experience persistent problems with memory or other neurological functions. Doctors believe individuals who experience severe or multiple concussions may be at a greater risk for neurologic disease later in life than the average person.

The findings of a recent study involving close to 2,500 retired National Football League players were presented at the 2003 meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. The data in this study revealed recurrent concussions do not lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as was believed to be the case. However, the research did indicate a link between multiple concussions and an increased risk of clinical depression. According to the data, players who’d had three to four concussions had twice the risk of clinical depression as players who had no history of concussions. Players who had five or more concussions had three times the risk.

Researchers know concussions disrupt chemical reactions in the brain and this imbalance may be what leads to depression. Future research will be aimed at finding out just what happens in the brain following a concussion and how long the disruption from the injury lasts.

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of a concussion and allow for time to recover. While loss of consciousness is often thought of as the telltale sign of a concussion, only individuals who suffer grade 2 or 3 concussions actually lose consciousness. Grade 1 concussions are harder to identify but some indications include confusion, short-term memory loss, persistent headache, fatigue, and impairment in vision, balance, or hearing. While a team trainer on the sidelines may be able to recognize the signs of a concussion, often teammates will recognize when a player is confused. Athletes who suffer a concussion should not just “shake it off” and return to the game. A doctor or medical trainer should evaluate the athlete to determine how much rest is needed and to decide when it is safe to return to play.

September 2003 Update

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