Heads up: Youth concussions may be tied to later multiple sclerosis diagnoses

soccerheader-211x300Although state and local laws may be curbing some of the harms the young can suffer with sports-related concussions, parents, coaches, teachers, and players may wish to reconsider even more the risks of head traumas: That’s because early such injuries may be tied to later diagnoses of multiple sclerosis.

To be sure, this is a developing area of research and the studies suggest an association between MS and head trauma, and not that concussions are a cause of the chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system.

MS, as the disease’s national society reports, “can cause many symptoms, including blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, and blindness and more. These problems may come and go or persist and worsen over time.”

After studying extensive health data available on more than 80,000 Swedes, more than 7,000 of whom were diagnosed with MS, researchers have found some disconcerting trends, as the New York Times has reported:

Adolescents who had experienced one concussion were about 22 percent more likely to later develop MS than those who had not had such head trauma. The risk rose by about 150 percent if a young person had sustained multiple concussions. Interestingly, concussions experienced during childhood did not contribute to a greater risk of MS later. The findings suggest that ‘there could be a link’ between head injury during adolescence and the development of MS as an adult.

The absolute numbers of study subjects who developed MS after a youthful concussion were small, researchers note. They said more research is needed. They noted, however, that medical scientists know that the human brain not only develops extensively in the teen years but that it lacks the plasticity and resiliency it possesses in childhood. It may be that teen head traumas trigger genetic or other propensities to MS, especially by aggravating immune responses to neurological damage.

In my practice, I see not only the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the big damages inflicted on them by brain and spinal cord injuries. Athletics play a huge role in American kids’ lives these days, providing them healthful exercise and an important means of socialization. But these benefits must be balanced with injuries and other harms youngsters can suffer while at play. Adults wouldn’t find head banging acceptable for kids under most circumstance—why do we do so, so readily in the name of sports like high school football?

It’s encouraging to see new published research showing that state and local laws, passed after a growing number of studies showed the long-term harms of head trauma, have started to curb problems with younger people suffering recurring concussions. The latest study shows that incidence reports rise just after the measures take effect then fall away, meaning the laws both build greater awareness of the risks of concussions and then lead coaches, players, parents, and sports programs do something about them.

The Washington Post also has reported—no surprise—that football can be blamed for most of young athletes’ concussions. But young women, notably in soccer, suffer more head traumas than their male counterparts. That may mean they need more protective gear, different play rules, and medical experts may need to consider if there are developmental or anatomical differences that women’s sports must adjust for.

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