Get your head back in the game

(for the benefit of my readers outside of the United States – unless stated otherwise, all mentions of ‘football’ refers to ‘American football’, hence the Featured Image)

There’s a small bit of the population that would much rather not wear a helmet for whatever reason, mostly aesthetic (many members of that small bit of the population are males, but that’s another discussion for another time). Of course, many of them would probably change their mind after their first concussion. When you get your head rocked violently, like from playing football or facepalming after too many dad jokes, you’re subject to a lot of warning signs that you’ve had a concussion. Here’s a few examples from the Centers for Disease Control. These are already bad enough, but there’s also that tidbit that if you’ve ever had a concussion, you’re at risk of getting another one from a similar head-rocking and you’ll take longer to recover. Granted, it’s a big concern if your career is something along the lines of sports or construction rather than, say, computer programmer, but still. Well, unless you’re counting self-inflicted injuries from vigorous head-desking because your program won’t compile and you’ve got a deadline coming up, but you’ve got some control over driving your forehead into your workstation (we hope).

Public Domain (Author: simplu27)

That’s why an accurate concussion diagnosis is important for athletes (sorry, programmers): you don’t want to get back to playing contact sports too soon after a concussion. It could also add up to long-term brain damage. I think we could do better than to treat our professional athletes better than discarded packaging once they’ve wound up their sporting careers.

A paper (open-access, BTW) recently published in Neurology hypothesized that a sharp increase in tau proteins indicates more nerve damage, so it’s a more severe brain trauma, leading to more time required to get back to playing. Here’s a video to help explain more about tau proteins and brain injury. To test this hypothesis, the authors took plasma samples from several athletes, some with positive diagnoses for sports-related concussion (SRC). They also had their cognition tested using a battery of tests that looked at reaction time, visual speed, and verbal memory. They even had their balance checked, since brain injuries could affect one’s equilibrium, after all. Just to be sure they covered their bases, they ran the same tests on ‘nonathlete controls’, which are non-athletes did not have SRC. They used samples from several athletes, including football, soccer (my kind of football), and hockey. Soccer would be a good target for this kind of research – ever taken a header? Do that over the course of a 20-or-so year professional career.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Author: United States Navy)

(and that’s not counting head-to-head impact)

So what did they find? The authors reported that if one had elevated tau proteins in their blood within 6 hours of concussion, it’s related to longer recovery time. If it’s high even after 24 or 72, then you’re on the shelf for much longer, as you would think. This is a rather important find, because when it comes to recovery from irreversible brain damage (and a concussion could be considered that since now your brain is more vulnerable than it used to be), you don’t want to take second-chances with a false negative, you want tests that can confirm with as little error as possible. The stakes are higher for professional athletes, since it’s the kind of thing that can end a career.

However, the authors also suggest that non-contact sport physical exertion is also related to higher tau, even without a concussion – but this does NOT mean that physical exertion raises tau protein concentration. Instead, other brain chemicals may be in play when it comes to brain injuries (they only tested for tau protein – remember, you limit the number of variables in an experiment), so if you think your workout (and you don’t play contact sports) is affecting your brain, perhaps you need to breathe more or stop smacking your head against the pavement.

Author unknown

I don’t know. I’m a scientist, not a personal trainer.

Featured Article: Gill J, Merchant-Borna K, Jermomin A, Livingston W, Bazarian J. (2017) Acute plasma tau relates to prolonged return to play after concussion. Neurology 88. DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000003587.

Featured Image: Public Domain/United States Army, United States Navy (Author: milliman)

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