Head impacts without concussion can damage brain

New study looked at football players, hockey players, non-contact athletes


If an athlete gets through a football or hockey season without a concussion, damage still may have been done.  A new study finds repeated head impacts in football and hockey may cause damage to the brain, even if the athlete is never concussed.

"What they found is there are some minor changes on the MRI, even in athletes that don't report that they've had a concussion," explained Dr. Rick Figler, who did not take part in the study but treats concussions at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health.

Researchers at the Indiana School of Medicine in Indianapolis spent a season following 80 nonconcussed division 1 football and hockey players. They also followed 79 non-contact athletes for comparison.

The football and hockey players wore helmets equipped with instruments to measure and record speed each time they impacted another player.  Results show just a single season of hits caused changes in the white matter of the brain, which affects memory and thinking.

"What they did with the study is that they showed that some of those forces based on the accelerometers that they were wearing inside their helmets were pretty significant, but they were not concussive-inducing," said Figler.

White matter allows messages to be passed.  It also affects learning and mental illness. Researchers say more studies are needed to determine how long the affects may last.  

Figler says the findings stress the importance of educating athletes about the signs and symptoms of a concussion.  He says they must also be willing to speak up after getting hit in the head.

"If they feel anything after an injury like that, a head hit, even a slight trauma and they're aware of it and they pay attention to it, they come off the field, those that come off the field or off the ice sooner typically get better faster," said Figler.

Complete findings for this study are in the online issue of the journal Neurology.