Op-Ed: What’s Really Causing Traumatic Brain Injury (Hint: It Isn’t Sports)


Maybe you didn’t realize it, but this month—March—has been National Brain Injury Awareness Month. During these 31 days, an estimated 140,000 people in the U.S. will have sustained some degree of traumatic brain injury (TBI), ranging from mild concussions to coma or death. 

Taken together, TBI is among the leading cause of disability and death in people who are otherwise typically the youngest and healthiest Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Which makes TBI’s nickname, “The Silent Epidemic,” an apt one. But make no mistake, the costs of TBI are huge: Added together, medical bills, chronic or lifelong disability, and indirect costs to society attributable to TBI are estimated at over $75 billion per year.

Concussions: This Is Your Brain on Sports



The good news—if you want to call it that—is that over the past decade, TBI has received increasing attention. Why? Unfortunately, it’s because of injuries sustained by athletes in various contact sports, including football, boxing, and hockey, as well as combat-related injuries to our brave military personnel.

These are important causes of TBI, but they mask a much bigger cause: Car accidents and falls continue to make up over half of these injuries, across all ages and in all areas of the U.S.

So what have we learned about TBI, and more important, what can be done to improve this otherwise grim scenario that continues to hurt our most promising members of society? I propose a three-pronged approach:

'Every Head Counts': Legislating Kids, Sports and Concussions

AWARENESS: It doesn’t just take a single, severe event to really damage your brain. It’s now clear that repetitive mild TBI contributes to the development of a variety of neurological and psychiatric symptoms, ranging from extremely subtle ones to those that are quite severe. (These are collectively referred to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE].) 

More recent evidence lends support to the theory that even significantly fewer incidents, and perhaps even one mild TBI episode, can result in long-standing structural changes in the brain and cause long-term cognitive effects. As our ability to detect the chronic effects of TBI become more sensitive and sophisticated, we are still learning just how pervasive the neurological and psychiatric effects on TBI patients really are. Only through awareness of the magnitude of this problem can we be called to action.

7 Ways to Stop the Biggest Killers of All: Injuries and Accidents

PREVENTION: Perhaps most important are the steps we can take together to stop these devastating injuries from occurring in the first place, and to minimize the extent of TBI when injuries do occur. Motor vehicle accidents, for instance, remain the most prominent cause of TBI among adolescents, throughout the world.

It’s no wonder that medical students are taught early on in medical school that you can do more during a routine check-up for an otherwise healthy teenager by reminding them to buckle up than by performing any physical screening exams, like listening to their heart and lungs with a stethoscope.  So reminding young people to practice safe driving behaviors—such as stopping texting while driving and not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs—are likely to have the greatest impact.

Of course, maintaining the highest safety standards during high-risk physical activities and contact sports is a worthwhile endeavor that any family member and/or sports fan can advocate for. You can become involved in a local chapter of the ThinkFirst Foundation, which emphasizes injury prevention and awareness, as well as improving the availability of protective equipment for our athletes. In addition, enforcing safest-practice athletic rules and guidelines for return-to-play on a local, as well as national, level can help minimize the burden of injury to our nation’s rising athletes.

One Small Thing: Cut Sports Concussions Severity by Reporting Injuries

RESEARCH: Although there have been significant improvements in how well those who suffer TBI do following treatment, there are still too few therapeutic approaches for TBI patients, as well as not enough options for neuro-rehabilitation and neuro-restoration. Only through cutting-edge research and quality clinical trials can emerging treatment options be effectively translated into doctors’ offices and hospitals, and offset the degree to which TBI results in permanent disability. You can get involved to help organize and raise funds for TBI research in your hometown. 

There are many ways to become involved in your community, and to champion preventative strategies and campaigns for research efforts in TBI.  Only through increased awareness and teamwork can we make a dent in the degree to which TBI affects our most promising and productive members of society.

Has TBI affected your life? What do you think we should do to lower the rates of these often devastating injuries? 

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Gabriel Zada, M.D. is an assistant clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and director of the endoscopic pituitary and skull base surgery program at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, in Los Angeles. TakePart.com

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.