Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Concussions in football

In the National Football League, players are generally not considered real men unless they shrug off injuries and play on. As common and even understandable as it is, this attitude has undesirable consequences when the brain is injured. A hearing before the U.S. Congress in October 2009 called attention to the long-term effects of head injury in professional football — and by extension provided cautions worth heeding by the parents of football players as young as age 6.

At issue is the growing awareness that repeated blows to the head, not just those that are severe enough to cause concussion, increase the risk for a variety of symptoms later in life, such as depression, poor motivation and concentration, and problems with learning and memory.

Consider what happens to the brain on impact. It accelerates very quickly, then decelerates just as quickly as it bangs into the skull. Nerve cells get stretched, connections between nerve cells get disrupted or sheared. Neurologists dispute the definition of a concussion, but terminology aside, all of this causes a short-term disturbance in brain function. It's no wonder that victims feel dazed, assuming they remain conscious.

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