Traumatic Brain Injuries from Contact Sports

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the leading cause of sports-related death in the United States. Alarmingly, approximately 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries suffered by American children and adolescents are related to sports and other recreational activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related TBIs of varying severity occur each year in the U.S. with victims of all ages.

While some traumatic brain injuries cause mild to moderate symptoms that are only temporary, more significant TBIs can result in extended periods of cognitive impairment, coma, or even death. A traumatic brain injury can be caused from a direct blow to the head, a fall, or significant impact to other areas of the body that result in indirect force to the brain. Although activities like skating, cheerleading, and skiing sometimes cause brain injuries, slip and fall accidents and contact sports like football, boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) are more commonly associated with severe TBIs. The Institute of Medicine reports that 11.2 out of every 10,000 high school football players suffer concussions every year, and 6.3 of every 10,000 college players are victims as well. Even more disturbing, approximately one-third of all MMA matches result in one or both fighters suffering a TBI.


An individual who has had a concussion is at a four times higher risk for suffering subsequent TBIs. After multiple concussions, it takes less trauma to cause subsequent injuries and the healing process is much longer. When repeated mild brain injuries occur over a long period of time, they can result in cumulative cognitive deficit. Those that occur within hours, days or weeks of an initial injury, however, can be fatal. “Second Impact Syndrome”, which is often not medically treatable and could be deadly, is caused by brain swelling that happens when a series of concussions occur before the brain is allowed to properly heal from a previous injury. Fortunately, Second Impact Syndrome can be prevented.

The American Academy of Neurology recommends the following to prevent Second Impact Syndrome and reduce the occurrence of other cumulative brain injuries in sports.

  • Recognize the symptoms of concussion.
  • Athletes who experience any alteration in mental status after a head injury should refrain from participating in activities until a medical examination is performed.
  • Activity should be avoided according to the severity of the TBI and the symptoms observed.

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