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Even without a concussion, head trauma causes brain changes

Numerous studies during the past several years have drawn attention to the long-term consequences of concussions, particularly among child athletes. Now, recent research suggests that even one season of a high-impact sport such as football can result in detectable brain abnormalities for some young athletes — even if they never actually suffer a concussion.

In a study presented to the Radiological Society of North America in December 2014, researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine analyzed data from 24 high school athletes between the ages of 16 and 18. It was the latest in a series of studies by Wake Forest researchers looking at the effects of head impact among young football players. The series, called Kinetics Impact Data Set, or KIDS, is the largest study of its kind.

Heavy impact linked to changes to brain tissue

The athletes in the recent KIDS study underwent two sets of brain scans: first before the football season began, and again after it was finished. Researchers gathered data from the players by affixing accelerometers to their helmets for the duration of a season. That data allowed them to count the number of head impacts that each player sustained, as well as the severity each blow.

Based on this information, the scientists then categorized each player in one of two groups: heavy hitters and light hitters. By comparing the before and after brain scans of each group, they found that the heavy hitters displayed significantly more brain abnormalities than the light hitters, even though none had suffered a concussion during the season.

These findings suggest that the brains of teens who sustain repetitive, relatively small blows to the head undergo noticeable changes. Although this study did not address any potential differences in brain function among the players, a similar study conducted on hockey players in 2013 showed that players whose brains underwent more impact-related changes throughout the season performed more poorly on cognitive tests involving learning and memory skills.

Until relatively recently, it was widely believed that children and teenagers were relatively resilient when it came to their ability to recover from head trauma. However, modern medical technology has provided researchers and medical experts with increasingly detailed information about the changes that occur within the tissues of the brain after an impact. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal found that, contrary to common belief, teenagers may actually be more likely than adults to suffer long-term cognitive setbacks resulting from traumatic brain injuries.

Protect your child’s interests after an injury

If your son or daughter has experienced complications from a head trauma sustained in a sporting accident, car crash or any type of impact, it may be a good idea to talk things over with a personal injury lawyer to learn about your options. A lawyer with experience in this area of the law can advise you about the steps you can take to protect your child’s interests, and in some cases may be able to help you secure monetary compensation for your child’s injuries and related expenses.