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The Link Between Contact Sports and Brain Injury



| The Link Between Contact Sports and Brain Injury |

Authored by: Julia Vasarevic | Speech Language Pathologist

In North America, contact sports such as hockey, rugby, and football are very popular, especially among the young male population. A contact sport is one where athletes come into bodily contact with each other, often at high speeds and with force. Although football, hockey, and similar contact sports can be enjoyable to watch and play, it is important to be aware of the associated risks of playing these sports, especially as a parent who is planning on enrolling their child in these activities. One of the main concerns associated with contact sports is getting a concussion – a mild brain injury caused by a hit to the head or neck. Although a child can recover from a concussion with proper care, repeated concussions can be very harmful, resulting in lasting brain damage. In developing countries, traumatic brain injury is found to be the leading cause of death and disability in children.

Until recently, not a lot of research has been done on the impact of repeated concussions on the brain. However, in July 2017 a powerful study was released, which provided alarming evidence on the impact of repeated concussions in football players between the ages of 23 and 89. The study was conducted by a neuropathologist, Dr. Ann McKee, who found significant brain damage in 110 of 111 N.F.L football players after death. Specifically, these athletes were all found to have something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E), a type of brain injury causing the following symptoms: confusion, memory loss, dementia and depression. These symptoms are caused by a disruption of cognitive processes in the brain. Examples of cognitive processes are: attention (the ability to focus), memory (remembering new and old information), problem-solving (finding solutions to problems), and organization. This sort of damage to the brain can also affect the ability to manage emotions (ex. anger, anxiety) appropriately. Although the above symptoms typically don’t show up until sometime after a brain injury, the damage accumulated with each hit to the head causes increased problems with these cognitive processes, affecting many areas of life. For instance, the ability to communicate (speak, listen, read, write, and interact socially) is often affected in those with brain injury causing difficulty with participation at school, work, and within relationships.

How many concussions does it take to cause significant brain damage?

As concussions are not always easy to diagnose and each individual’s brain is different, there is currently no evidence available to suggest exactly how many concussions will cause C.T.E or other levels of brain damage. However, in the above study, one athlete was found to have symptoms of C.T.E after only 5 documented concussions. If you have ever seen a football game, you know how often players charge into each other at high speeds!

It is important to understand that brain damage does not only occur in the brains of professional athletes. The full study mentioned above examined a total of 202 brains, including those of high school and college football players, and found that 87% had C.T.E. Although high school athletes were found to have more mild cases, they still exhibited some degree of cognitive problems, due to brain damage.

But what if my child wears a helmet?

Wearing a helmet during contact sports and other potentially dangerous activities (i.e. bike riding, skateboarding) is very important as it helps reduce the chance of brain injury. However, although a helmet can absorb some of the force experienced during a hard hit to the head, it’s main purpose is to protect the skull from breaking or fracturing. Unfortunately there is no strong research to support that helmets prevent concussions. This is because a concussion is not always caused by a direct hit to the head. It can also occur when the neck or body experience a strong force or acceleration, causing the brain to shake around in the skull. Therefore, although helmets are definitely helpful in preventing brain injury, more research must be done to create helmets that do a better job of preventing concussions.

Although the information above should not prevent parents from enrolling children in sports altogether, it is important to be aware of the risks, and/or enrol your child in safer sports such as flag football, or non-contact sports such as, volleyball, tennis, or swimming, to reduce the chance of sustaining a concussion.

At Therapy Spot we provide cognitive-communication assessment and therapy to children and adults who have experienced concussion or other forms of brain injury, and are having difficulty communicating effectively at home, school, and/or work. Therapy involves functional exercises and strategies to improve the cognitive processes of: attention, memory, problem-solving and organization. Activities are done in the context of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and social activities that are meaningful to your child. To find out more about our services visit the Concussion and Stroke page of the Therapy Spot website.


American Speech-Language Hearing Association. (2017). Roles of Speech-Language Pathologists in the Identification, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Individuals With Cognitive-Communication Disorders: Position Statement.

Mez, J., Daneshvar, D.H., Kiernan, P.T., et al. (2017). Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football. JAMA, 318(4), 360-370.

Sone, J.Y., Kondziolka, D., Huang, J.H., & Samadani, U. (2017) Helmet efficacy against concussion and traumatic brain injury: a review. J Neurosurgery, 126, 768-781.

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