Sports leagues across the country have instituted policies which pull players from play if they are suspected of experiencing a concussion, but there is plenty of evidence to show the rule isn’t foolproof. There have been several high-profile cases where athletes have endured brain injuries on the field without being pulled from the game, and this pattern is likely to happen at all levels of play.
However, continuing to play after experiencing a concussion can actually keep players off the field longer by extending the time needed to recover, according to a small U.S. study published in the Journal of Athletic Training.
In some cases, refusing to step off the field may keep the player from ever returning to competition.
According to the report, athletes at NCAA Division 1 universities who experienced concussions averaged an extra five days before being returned to play if they stayed on the field after their injury. Those who immediately reported their symptoms and were assessed returned to play sooner and experienced fewer symptoms overall.
These findings support past research which indicates “the brain is likely vulnerable to further physiologic and metabolic changes right after an injury – whether that be from sustaining more impacts or even from continued exertion,” says lead author Breton Asken, neuropsychology graduate student at the University of Florida’s Clinical Psychology doctoral program.
“Our study relied on a somewhat complicated outcome – being cleared to return to athletic activity – to measure how this physiologic window of vulnerability may express itself clinically,” Asken told Reuters Health by email.
To evaluate how staying in the game affects recovery from TBI, the researchers analyzed information from the University of Florida Concussion Databank, which collects medical history, details of injury events, and assessment data for student athletes. Specifically, they focused on 97 athletes who sustained a concussion during a game or practice between 2008 and 2015. Of those athletes, 75 were male.
Slightly more than half of the players did not report their symptoms and stayed in competition after their injury. These players took an average of 13 days to recover before being cleared to play compared to seven days for those who were immediately assessed.
“Our findings indicate that immediately engaging your medical staff if you suspect you have sustained a concussion will give you the best chance to return to your sport more quickly,” Asken said.
While the findings help emphasize the importance of stopping play to evaluate players with potential brain injuries, it also shows how frequently players are staying on the field after brain injuries despite regulations. While it is important that players report any symptoms they experience, it is also essential for coaching and medical staff to be watchful for any incidents that could lead to concussions and take action as soon as they occur.