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An Rx for Athletes' Mild Head Injuries

September 08, 1997|THE WASHINGTON POST

Athletes who suffer mild head injuries require at least three days of recuperation after symptoms disappear before engaging again in physical activity, according to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina.

The study of 22 athletes found that it takes at least three days to recover balance after a mild head injury. The study also found that healing continues for more than a week after a minor blow to the head.

Mild head injuries are common in many sports, from baseball and soccer to lacrosse, wrestling and football. These injuries often result in some form of temporary mental confusion, brief memory loss and short-term unconsciousness, lasting less than 20 minutes.

Coaches, team physicians and athletic trainers often struggle to determine when an injured athlete can safely return to competition, "especially since young athletes sometimes deny they have headaches and blurred vision or feel dizzy just to get back in the game," said Kevin M. Guskiewicz, assistant professor of physical education and a lead author of the study.

Returning to the athletic field too soon leaves athletes vulnerable to secondary impact syndrome, a condition that causes loss of brain function and can lead to respiratory arrest. Half of those with secondary impact syndrome die, Guskiewicz says. The other half survive with some degree of permanent brain damage, he said.

To help determine when athletes with mild head injuries can return safely to playing, Guskiewicz and his colleagues studied 22 people. Half had experienced a mild head injury during athletic competition. The other half were control subjects.

All participants underwent testing in a special device used to measure balance with their eyes open and closed. Testing was done one, three, five and 10 days after injury. One additional measurement was taken after the end of the athletes' seasons. Researchers also measured the athletes' memory as well as their ability to think and concentrate using various written and visual tests.

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