After plaguing the sport from its inception, concussions have become the headline story of the year in the NFL.
Classified by neurologists and other doctors as mild traumatic brain injuries, or MTBIs, concussions are overdue for consideration in football, where punishing blows to players' heads occur on virtually every snap. Football players, especially those in the college and professional ranks, accept the short- and long-term risks of concussions. Other people are at no less risk for MTBIs when they slip and fall, get into traffic accidents, have falling objects strike their heads, or even just have their heads jerk backward or forward suddenly, as can happen when a driver slams on his or her brakes to avoid a car crash.
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The classic, and usually immediately apparent, symptoms of a full-blown concussion include headache, lack of mental and visual focus, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, lack of physical coordination and slurred speech. Any time a person loses consciousness after getting hit in the head, a concussion likely occurred. Even if the person is just dazed, disoriented or stunned, an MTBI may still have happened.
Longer-term effects of undiagnosed or repeated concussions can, according to the National Institutes of Health, include "physical, emotional, or intellectual changes or deficits." Stated more bluntly, a growing body of evidence indicates that people with untreated or frequent concussions are at increased risk for depression, Parkinson-type diseases and dementia, especially dementia related to Alzheimer's disease.
Because of the potential severe outcomes for people with concussions, family members of, acquaintances of and, most importantly, health care providers for people with concussions need to recognize more subtle signs and symptoms of MTBI. Indications that someone has suffered a concussion or is having ongoing problems related to an MTBI include
- Excessive sensitivity to bright lights (i.e., photophobia)
- Irritability and emotional instability
- Memory problems
- Decreased ability to perform simple mental tasks like add numbers or recite lists
Anyone displaying these problems days, or even weeks, after suffering a possible concussion should have a complete neurological exam as soon as possible. Detecting concussions early and treating them appropriately are essential for minimizing the chances of later mental, physical and emotional problems stemming from MTBIs.