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The Connection Between Subconcussive Impacts and CTE

If you know little about subconcussions and how they affect the brain, it might be time to look into what we know. As more evidence comes out about how a concussion in football manifests in terms of symptoms, there’s more and more weight being put behind the idea that subconcussions play a far bigger role than people realise.

What Is a Subconcussion?

If a concussion is the ‘big event’ that causes symptoms of brain damage, you can think of subconcussions as their far less dramatic cousin. However, if these far less concerning events are occurring on a regular basis, then trouble might not be too far behind.

When you’re playing a sport like football, one that demands a lot of close contact with other players, the constant impacts can gradually build up to more serious matters like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The problem is that subconcussions can look like little more than standard play in a sport as violent as football.

Are Subconcussions the Driving Force Behind CTE?

It’s not clear yet, but there is a lot of information to support this idea. A subconcussion doesn’t damage brain cells in a way that a concussion does, which is to say that the aftermath isn’t nearly as obvious. However, just because the injury doesn’t meet the criteria for a concussion in football, doesn’t mean that the cumulative effect can’t lead to CTE.

Researchers describe it as an overuse injury, in that the repetition can be enough to lead to serious problems if the body doesn’t have enough time to repair itself. So if a pitcher is constantly throwing curve balls, maybe their tendons hold up over time. Or maybe they throw one too many and end up with a serious rotator cuff injury.

In terms of head injuries, though, the stakes are a lot higher. All those smaller traumas might not seem like an issue, until the larger damage reveals itself on a scan of the brain.

How Does It All Add Up?

Because subconcussions often go unnoticed, researchers have been studying their impact with accelerometers. These devices make it possible to measure traumatic hits, both in terms of quantity and severity. In these studies, they explicitly compare people who have had a concussion in football with those who haven’t, which allows them to understand more about what subconcussive events actually do to the brain.

What they’ve found is that too many hits can bring about many of the symptoms of CTE:

  • Memory loss: Football players who suffer from fewer hits typically do better on memory and attention tests than those who have experienced more.
  • Damaged connections: When the wiring in the brain is damaged, it makes it difficult for one section to ‘talk’ to another. Subconcussions affect the structure of these wiring and disrupt the connections.
  • Behavioral problems: It’s not always easy to quantify the effects of behavioral problems, but some studies do show that athletes who sustained more injuries over time were more at risk for developing mood or behavior disorders later in life.

Understanding the Risks

The Concussion Legacy Foundation has put a lot of effort into understanding how trauma to the brain — be it micro, macro, or anything in between — can lead to more significant damage and outcomes. Some subconcussions can heal on their own without any interference from a medical professional. However, some may end in something as debilitating as CTE. It’s important for everyone to understand the connections between the two, particularly as more research comes out to support what seemingly small collisions can do to the body.

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