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Quick Facts

Sports-Related Concussion

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

What is a sports-related concussion?

A concussion is an injury to your brain that temporarily affects your thinking and awareness. You may be knocked out (unconscious) or may just feel confused.

The skull bone protects your brain. Fluid inside your skull also cushions your brain. However, if your head gets hit hard enough, your brain can move inside the skull and bump up against your skull. This may temporarily change the way your brain works.

A sports-related concussion is a concussion that you get from a sports injury, such as hitting your head from playing football.

Almost 1 in 5 athletes playing contact sports have a concussion during the season.

  • Concussions can happen in any sport but are more likely in sports that have high-speed collisions, such football, rugby, ice hockey, and lacrosse

  • If you get a sports-related concussion, you may or may not pass out

  • If you get a sports-related concussion and keep playing sports, you're at higher risk for getting another concussion

  • Repeat concussions can be caused by minor head injury

  • Repeat concussions may increase your chance of having long-term brain damage and getting dementia

See a doctor right away, especially one who is has treated lots of sports-related concussions, if you think you have a sports-related concussion.

Which sports can cause concussion?

Concussions are caused by something hitting your head very hard. In sports, this can happen when you:

  • Fall and hit your head

  • Hit your head on another player

  • Are struck on your head with an object such as a ball, bat, or stick

Concussions can happen in almost any sport. However, they are more likely in sports where people run into each other at high speed, such as football, rugby, or ice hockey. They are also more likely in sports involving sticks and pucks or balls that travel at high speed.

What are the symptoms of a sports-related concussion?

You may be unconscious for a little while (usually for less than 15 minutes). But you don't have to be knocked out to have a concussion. You may also have:

  • Confusion, including being dazed or stunned, being unsure of the score or what team you are playing, or answering questions slowly

  • Memory loss, such as not knowing team plays or not remembering what happened before or after the injury

  • Double vision and sensitivity to light

  • Being clumsy

  • Headache and feeling dizzy

  • Poor balance

Some symptoms can happen for a few days or weeks after your concussion:

  • Ongoing headaches

  • Trouble with your memory

  • Feeling tired and irritable

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Mood swings

  • Sensitivity to light and noise

If you have more than one sports-related concussion, even minor ones, you can have long-term brain injury called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). CTE develops years later. It causes symptoms such as:

  • Memory problems

  • Trouble with judgment and decision-making

  • Changes in your personality, such as getting angry easily and being more violent

Parkinsonism is one or more of the movement problems like the ones people get from Parkinson disease, such as shaking, slow movement, trouble speaking, or stiff muscles

How can doctors tell if I have a sports-related concussion?

If you had a head injury while playing sports, a doctor will:

  • Ask you questions

  • Do a physical exam to see whether all the parts of your brain are working right

  • Do imaging tests like MRI or CT scan to make sure you don't have long-term brain damage—for example, CTE can be seen on imaging tests

If you don't come back to normal within a few minutes or were unconscious for a long time, the doctor will usually:

  • Send you to the hospital for a CT scan of your head to make sure your brain isn't bleeding or bruised

It's good to see a doctor who has experience with sports-related concussions.

How do doctors treat a sports-related concussion?

Your doctor will ask you to:

  • Rest

  • Take acetaminophen for any headache

  • Stop activities that may excite your brain (for example, using computers, playing video games, and watching TV)

  • Return to the hospital if your symptoms get worse

Before you can return to your sport, your doctor may ask you to start with easy exercises and slowly work your way through drills. You shouldn't start playing again until your symptoms are gone and your doctor clears you to play.

How can I prevent future sports-related concussions?

  • Wear any helmets recommended for your sport

  • Don't play contact sports until your doctor says your head injury has completely healed

  • Start gradually as you return to your sport

Some athletes undergo neurocognitive testing (testing of certain brain functions) before sports participation. This way if concussion is suspected, doctors can retest the athlete and find out if brain problems have developed.

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