Concussion-like symptoms can occur after exercising or playing sports — without any blows to the head, according to new research. These symptoms, such as fatigue and neck pain, are simply caused by vigorous exercise, say scientists at Rutgers University. Their study suggests diagnosing sports-related concussions is harder than previously thought.
“Our findings highlight the importance of considering the effects of exercise and fatigue in assessing concussion in athletes on the field,” says study first author Stephanie Iring, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers, in a statement. “While players with a head impact may report more symptoms generally, we have to be cautious in using all symptoms since some are common after intense exercise even when there was no head impact.”
Researchers assessed 209 rugby players who were subjected to a sports concussion assessment tool (SCAT) widely used by governing bodies. It includes questions about “red flag” symptoms such as neck pain, headache, muscle weakness and vision problems, as well as tests on memory and balance.
Scores were compared between 80 participants who reported sustaining a blow to the head during intense matches with 129 who had not. The former group had an average of 26 symptoms on the scale, significantly more than the others. But many of the latter had symptoms that were similar to those reported by players with head injuries, including fatigue and neck pain.
Most previous trials of the standardized technique have been based on athletes with head injuries and peers at rest.
“Our data shows exertion during a match increased the number and severity of self-reported symptoms in control players – even though they had not experienced a head impact,” says Iring. “This could lead to difficulty differentiating these players from those that had experienced a head impact when using on-field assessments.”
Some, including headache and “not feeling right,” were more closely associated with having a head injury. They might be a stronger indicator of concussion in players who have just finished an intense game, say the researchers. Other categories that were more common included effects on vision, emotions and hypersensitivity to noise.
The researchers report that further work is needed to see how the components can combine with current physiological measures to better assess concussion. Effects, usually caused by a bang on the head – can be serious and long-lasting. Between 1.7 and 3 million sports- and recreation-related concussions happen each year, according to figures by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
From dizziness to memory loss, they are associated with a range of unpleasant symptoms. Traumatic brain injuries have been increasingly in the spotlight, particularly among former NFL players, who say cognitive decline is linked to the hits to the head from their playing days.
Iring presented the research at the 2022 American Physiological Society annual meeting during the Experimental Biology (EB) 2022 meeting, held in Philadelphia.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.