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Traumatic Brain Injury and Athletes

One of the conditions that may be encountered in both amateur and professional athletes is traumatic brain injury (TBI). In our context, TBI will be used to describe any change in normal brain function that occurs after the application of violent physical force to the head or upper body.

In today’s post, the personal injury and sports accident lawyer at the Doan Law Firm will review some of the types of brain injury that may affect amateur and professional athletes and then describe accepted practices that are intended to reduce the occurrence and long-term consequences of such injuries.


A concussion is the most commonly diagnosed type of TBI in athletes and refers to a transient change in brain function that resolves (“goes away”) without medical treatment. The symptoms of a concussion are varied, but typically include at least one of the following “classic” symptoms:

  • Brief loss of consciousness
  • Drowsiness, including difficulty in waking the victim from sleep
  • Confusion / disorientation
  • Visual disturbances (e.g. “seeing double”)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Impairment of cognitive function when performing simple tasks such as mental arithmetic or counting by a certain number

The presence of any of the above symptoms during, or after, active participation in contact sports should result in the athlete’s immediate removal from the field of play, followed by a period of observation and evaluation by someone with training in the diagnosis and emergency medical management of TBI.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

There has been considerable coverage in the news media of a form of brain injury known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that develops slowly over time in athletes who suffer repetitive head injuries that do not lead to a concussion. CTE is distinguished from other forms of brain injury in that 1) CTE is not usually associated with the “classic” symptoms of concussion and 2) CTE develops years after the athlete retires from, or ceases activity, in contact sports. CTE has been diagnosed most frequently in professional football players, boxers, and professional wrestlers.

Second-Impact Syndrome

Second-Impact Syndrome (SIS) is a rare, but potentially catastrophic, condition that develops when an athlete suffers a second concussion before the symptoms of an earlier concussion have disappeared. Symptoms of SIS typically appear within minutes of the second injury and often include sudden loss of consciousness, seizures, and evidence of brain injuries such as dilated pupils and respiratory arrest. Available data seems to indicate that as many as 50% of SIS victims will not survive their injury and that, of those that do survive, virtually 100% will suffer some type of life-long neurological disability.

SIS is seen almost exclusively in teenage males, with the only exceptions being found in those who compete in amateur or professional boxing. The development of this condition does not appear to be dependent on the severity of either injury and can appear days or weeks after the first injury.

Preventing TBI and its consequences

It is accepted that injuries of any type, including TBI, will occur during athletic events. The focus on preventing these injuries should be directed to 1) preventing TBI through the proper use safety equipment and 2) post-injury management of TBI.

The function of safety equipment is largely beyond the control of both athletes and their coaches because manufacturing defects are usually not detected until the equipment suddenly fails during an event, which is a relatively rare occurrence.

Coaches and event sponsors do have, however, a duty to monitor their professional literature for reports of unexpected failure in such equipment. This means that the most effective means of managing complications of TBI rests with the prompt identification of TBI followed by measures to limit its impact on the injured athlete.

Currently, the “best practices” that have been recommended by medical professionals and the various administrative agencies involved with athlete safety involve immediate removal of a suspected TBI-affected athlete from competition and not allowing the athlete to return to the event until cleared by a medical professional with training in the management of TBI and its potential complications. These experts also recommend that any suspected TBI be fully investigated by available medical technology such as CT or MRI scanning prior to the athlete’s return to training or competition.

Why you need a sports injury lawyer to manage your potential brain injury lawsuit

Diagnosis and medical management of TBI is truly a “team effort” that begins on the sidelines and ends with professional medical care. Given that there are established guidelines for the proper management of TBI exist and have been shown to be effective, failure to implement those practices could be seen as negligence on the part of a coaching staff and/or school administrators.

If your child suffered a TBI during a sporting event, and you feel that the injury was not properly evaluated or treated, you should contact a personal injury lawyer who has experience investigating sports injuries and their treatment. After hearing the facts surrounding your child’s injury and reviewing the available evidence, a sports injury attorney will be able to advise you on the legal options that may be available to assist you and your child in receiving the compensation you deserve after such an injury.

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