Athletes Concealing Concussions, Study Finds

Cheerful woman wiping sweat from forehead after workout

In recent years, concussions have been placed in an increasingly bright spotlight. New research has shown that concussions may have many more long-term health risks than previously thought. In 2014, the National Football League settled a lawsuit in which more than 4,500 former players had sued the league for concussion-related misconduct, including concealing from players the full dangers of such an injury.

Public awareness of concussion risks is high, and sports with a high rate of concussions, like football and hockey, have had to take much more cautious approaches to identifying, evaluating and treating concussions. However, despite the growing awareness, a new study from McGill University in Montreal suggests that many players are still concealing or minimizing the symptoms of a concussion in order to be cleared to play.

The study was published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, and co-authored by Dr. J. Scott Delaney. Delaney, a sports medicine specialist, serves as the team physician for the McGill football and soccer teams, as well as the Montreal Alouettes (a Canadian Football League team) and the Montreal Impact (a Major League Soccer team).

Over a period of 12 months, Delaney and his fellow researchers surveyed 469 students involved in collegiate athletics. Twenty percent of the students who participated in the survey believed they had sustained a concussion during this period of time. However, 80 percent of those who believed they had had at least one concussion did not report their symptoms or seek medical attention, and chose to keep playing.

Many Players Believe Concussions Are Not Serious

Most of the athletes who did not get treatment for a suspected concussion said they believed concussions did not pose a serious risk to their health. Public awareness of concussions may be increasing, but this information suggests that the true risks of a concussion are not well understood by some of the people who are among the most likely to be affected by these injuries.

Some players also said that they did not report their concussion because they were worried about being taken out of the game. They said they were concerned that complaining about a possible injury would lead their coaches or their teammates to think poorly of them, or cause them to lose playing time in the future.

The lack of knowledge and concerns about team standing suggest that the coaches and medical staff who oversee player welfare in college and professional sports may be able to take steps to improve this problem. They can emphasize the importance of player safety by informing athletes about the risks of concussion and the long-term seriousness of getting treatment and rest right away.

Concussion Can Increase Risk of Mental Illness and Deterioration

Accepted wisdom about concussions—also known as mild traumatic brain injuries—used to be that symptoms of these injuries lasted no more than a few weeks. However, more recent research is increasingly demonstrating that even one concussion can have long-term risks, and that the risks increase greatly with multiple concussions.

Concussions can result in psychological symptoms such as sleep disruption, depression and mood swings. Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea and memory loss. Research has suggested that concussions can lead to abnormal brain wave activity years after a concussion. One study found that former athletes with a history of concussions have symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. Another study found that tau proteins are abnormal in many retired NFL players, which is a characteristic that has been associated with Alzheimer’s.

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