Young athletes have a lot of reason to worry about concussions. Not only can these brain injuries put them on the sidelines with debilitating symptoms ranging from headaches and memory problems to vision and coordination issues. Athletes are also gripping with the risk of long-time brain disease from repeated concussions.
Now, these young athletes have another reason to be concerned about head injuries. A new, large-scale study suggests that experiencing concussions at an early age may increase the risk for developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life.
According to the findings published in Annals of Neurology, the risk is highest for athletes who reported having more than one head injury.
The researchers from Orebro University and the Karolinska Institute of Sweden note that overall the risk is still relatively low, but it is important to recognize the association between concussions and MS.
Multiple sclerosis is still largely not understood. We don’t know the cause for the condition and treatments mostly focus on managing symptoms, rather than the underlying condition.
Past animal studies have indicated that brain trauma can affect the central nervous system, potentially igniting the biological reactions that are associated with MS. Other statistical investigations have also found a heightened rate of MS in adults with a history of head trauma.
For the latest research, scientists reviewed the medical history of every person in Sweden who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis since 1964, when the country first started collecting data on the condition.
The analysis found a total of 7,292 men and women who had been diagnosed with the disease through 2012.
Then, the team matched these individuals with 10 other Swedish citizens from similar backgrounds. This allowed the team to compare the data from the men and women with MS against almost 80,000 people with no history of multiple sclerosis.
Lastly, the team used this data to assess which individuals had visited a Swedish hospital for treatment regarding a concussion or broken bone when they were young.
The team says they included the information about broken bones because it is believed that symptoms of MS may affect people much earlier than it is typically diagnosed, and may contribute to clumsiness or injury.
The researchers explain that they hope to use this information to discern whether concussions are leading to MS, or whether early multiple sclerosis symptoms could make people more prone to head injuries.
To help delineate whether concussions early in life were contributing to MS, the researchers also split the data into concussions among children younger than 11, and adolescents between the ages of 11 and 20.
Based on the data, the team says that adolescents with a history of concussion were approximately 22% more likely to develop MS compared to those with no history of head trauma. The risk jumps by approximately 150% for those who had experienced multiple concussions.
The findings lead the scientists to say “there could be a link” between head injury in childhood and the development of MS later in life.
Scott Montgomery, professor of clinical epidemiology at Orebro University and lead author of the study, theorizes that the brains of younger children may be more vulnerable to the long-term effects of brain injury.
The findings raise yet another red flag about the risks of concussions in young athletes and their long-term consequences. Still, Dr. Montgomery says that “physical activity and participation in sports should be encouraged in young people.”
However, he agrees that this should be balanced with the need to protect young athletes from concussions.
“We should try to minimize the risk of young people experiencing head injuries,” concludes Montgomery.