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Almost everyone has seen the news in the last few years about professional football players and their risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a tragic brain disease linked to athletes sustaining repeated brain injuries, whether concussions or microtrauma, over the course of their careers.
However, professional football players are not the only athletes who suffer concussions (which doctors might formally diagnose as “mild” traumatic brain injury, or mTBI, for short) and other brain injuries in training and competition. Anyone who plays a sport can sustain a TBI in a collision, fall, or sudden impact, and the health consequences those players face are no less severe than those risked by the pros. Adolescents, in particular, have a heightened risk for TBIs and lifelong complications, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at UCSF.
Although advanced brain injury treatments continue to evolve, one truth about concussions brooks no disagreement: An injured brain must rest to heal. Unfortunately, and far too often, athletes and/or their coaches insist on toughing it out and returning to action immediately after athletes get their bell rung in an on-field incident. That is one of the worst things anyone can do. It can lead to additional, debilitating injuries. Instead, always follow this simple rule after any sports-related impact makes you see stars or suffer other symptoms of brain injuries:
Stay off the field until your brain has healed!
Traumatic brain injuries, referred to as TBIs, typically result from a blow, jolt, or penetrating injury to the head involving enough force to cause the brain to move around inside the skull. That movement can result in direct harm (such as bruising or tearing of brain tissue) and secondary harm (resulting from bleeding or swelling, for example). “Mild” TBI, or concussion, is the most common form of TBI, but no matter their rating, TBIs can cause debilitating, long-lasting deficits and impairments for their victims.
TBIs frequently happen in connection with sports. High-contact sports like football, lacrosse, and ice hockey, obviously, feature an inherent risk of TBI, which is why athletes who play these sports must typically wear helmets to provide some measure of protection—although, as the experience of the NFL shows us, by no means do helmets solve the problem of head injuries in sports.
However, playing virtually any sport can put an athlete at risk of a head injury:
The list could go on and on. Although some sports come with a higher risk of head injury than others, all of them feature at least the same risk any person faces in going about their day-to-day activities.
However, unlike many aspects of everyday life, athletes feel an intense drive to compete that can often override their judgment about whether their bodies can handle a return to action. In a very real sense, the same competitive drive that leads to athletic success can put an athlete who suffers a concussion at risk of further injury. Athletes, parents, coaches, and referees must each monitor a player’s condition to address a potential head injury immediately, and to restrict the player’s activities until a medical professional has signed-off on a clean bill of health.
Concussion symptoms may be difficult to detect because they do not appear immediately after an injury or they might be mistaken for some other injury. In fact, concussion symptoms can come and go for a long time.
Concussions might seem difficult to diagnose on the playing field because, of course, you cannot see into the brain. Doctors, however, can spot telltale signs of a concussion after an athlete sustains a violent blow in competition or training. That is why athletes should always seek medical care immediately after any impact that could result in a TBI.
This is not to say that non-medical personnel won’t see any warning signs. In the moments and hours after an on-field collision or impact, any of these symptoms could signal a concussion and should result in the athlete leaving play immediately:
Ignoring and playing through these symptoms could come at a devastating cost. Research has found that continuing to play while concussed can substantially lengthen the time it takes for an athlete to recover from a concussion and its related symptoms. It also places the athlete at heightened risk of sustaining a second concussion, which can have much more severe and long-lasting symptoms. In the worst cases, playing through a concussion can lead to life-threatening health conditions.
Doctors assign degrees of severity to concussions, just as they do to TBIs generally. As with TBIs generally, however, do not let the degrees of severity listed above fool you: all concussions can lead to profound negative health outcomes, and require immediate medical attention and proper treatment. No athlete should return to the field of play immediately after suffering any of these injuries.
Athletes who suffer concussions always want to know when they can get back to playing. In the past, the competitive culture of athletics reinforced a dangerous answer to that question: as soon as possible. That ethos of toughing it out and playing through the pain still has a strong hold on competitive athletics in the United States. As our understanding of the profound dangers of concussions grows, however, we must all work to change that culture.
The fact is, there is no simple answer to give to a concussed athlete who asks “When can I play again?” Instead, coaches, parents, sports institutions and organizations, and athletes themselves, have an obligation to follow guidelines reflecting the current medical understanding of how concussions happen, and how they heal.
Those guidelines may vary from league-to-league and sport-to-sport. However, generally speaking, they should follow the recommendations of stakeholders like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), who generally recommend immediate removal from athletic activity when an athlete has sustained a suspected concussion, an immediate medical evaluation by a qualified professional trained in diagnosing and treating concussions, and a gradual, step-by-step return to activity overseen by a doctor and dictated by the progress of the athlete’s healing.
Protect yourself and/or your youth athlete by becoming familiar with these guidelines and insisting that any organized league adopt and enforce them. If you see a referee fail to stop play when an athlete takes a dangerous impact, or you spot a coach sending a disoriented player back into the game, speak up. No game or match is worth the cost of a severe brain injury.
Athletes, parents, coaches, referees, and organizers must take sports concussions seriously. If they do not, then an athlete who suffers an on-field concussion may face drastic, long-lasting health outcomes. Failing to care for an athlete’s wellbeing could also lead to legal liability on the part of anyone whose decisions or actions allowed a concussion to go untreated, and an athlete’s condition to worsen. No more athletes should sustain brain trauma because of the outdated and dangerous ethos of toughing it out or playing through an injury.
An experienced sports concussion injury lawyer works to hold individuals and entities accountable when they put an athlete’s life and health at risk by ignoring the warning signs of, or necessary protocols for addressing, a sports-related brain injury.
Every instance of an untreated sports concussion has its own particulars, of course, but in general a lawyer might help the victim of a tragic failure to protect athlete safety by:
Lawyers can never guarantee how any legal action will turn out, of course. The specific facts and circumstances of an athlete’s brain injury and recovery heavily influence the outcome of any effort to obtain compensation. Generally speaking, however, an athlete who suffers lasting traumatic brain injury because of the careless or reckless decision to let the athlete continue playing after a likely concussion may have the right to obtain compensation to pay for medical care and other expenses related to the injury, and for the pain, emotional difficulty, and struggles caused by living with a brain injury that should have healed if only those responsible for the athlete’s safety had taken the required steps.
Sports enrich our lives. They teach us, challenge us, thrill us, and (hopefully) keep us healthy. Telling an athlete not to play a sport might as well amount to asking the athlete not to breathe; it’s impossible and unhealthy. And yet, sometimes we need to convince athletes not to return to the field or court until their brains have healed from a dangerous, albeit invisible (to all but a CT scan), injury.
Concussions, if ignored, can develop into lasting impairments that permanently disrupt an athlete’s life. It may seem difficult to keep an athlete away from competition, but sometimes the choice is one of life-and-death, or very close to it. That is why we owe it to ourselves and the athletes we love to follow the essential rule of sports concussion treatment: stay off the field until your brain has healed.
We also have an obligation to hold to account anyone who explicitly or implicitly encourages athletes to ignore that rule. So, if you or an athlete you love has suffered a sports concussion that went untreated—either because a coach forced the athlete to tough it out, a sports organization failed to adopt or educate its stakeholders about concussion protocols, or through some other act of negligence—contact an experienced sports concussion injury attorney right away. You or your favorite athlete may have the right to significant compensation if you act quickly to protect your interests.
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