Having a mild concussion “is akin to being mildly pregnant,” said Douglas H. Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania.
Smith, a professor of neurosurgery at Penn, presented information on the impact of mild traumatic brain injuries - concussions to you and me - at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego this weekend.
Most of us only think about concussions when prominent athletes suffer head injuries.
Last season, for example, when Eagles running back Brian Westbrook suffered two concussions that prompted speculation that he might retire from football. Or in 2006 when Flyers captain Keith Primeau retired as a result of lingering symptoms and fears that one more blow to the head would be devastating.
Smith noted that concussions are a much more widespread problem than most people realize. Each year a million people in the United States have one. Still, Smith said, the issue is largely ignored as a significant health issue even though these injuries often cause persistent neurocognitive problems in many people. Moreover, the financial and emotional costs are enormous, he said.
With advanced imaging scans, Smith and colleague at Penn have begun to gather data on the effect of concussions on nerve cells and connections in the brain. Scans taken two to four days after concussions reveal changes throughout the parts of the white matter of the brain, an area made up of largely nerve fibers.
“This is not inconsequential,” said Smith. “The observation that brain pathology can be detected after a concussion calls for much more extensive efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat mild traumatic brain injury.”