University of Alberta researchers have found that people who injure their heads while playing sports are more likely to incur future head injuries.
Donald Voaklander, a professor for the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, and his graduate student Andrew Harris set out to determine if the effect of head injuries in elite athletes occurs on a broader scale.
“What we found was the same pattern is confirmed in a community sample of all recreational activities,” Voaklander said. “People who get one head injury are three times more likely to return to the ER with a second head injury — and if they get a second head injury, they are six times more likely to return to the ER with a third head injury.”
Using data collected from Edmonton’s emergency department, Voaklander was able to look back over an 11-year period, counting the number of people up to the age of 35 who had suffered head injuries.
He then looked to see if those same people returned to the ER with a subsequent head injury at a later time point, and drew conclusions about which sports resulted in the highest amount of head injuries.
“We found the higher-risk sports for repeat head injuries were anything to do with animals,” Voaklander said. “So primarily the equestrian sports, followed by rugby, then hockey, and lastly by ATV use.”
Voaklander also found that the highest-risk age group consisted of individuals between 13 and 17 years of age. Males also usually had more head injuries than females, except for equestrian-based sports such as horseback riding.
The findings were mostly conformational, but Voaklander said he hopes that they will add to the growing evidence about the serious nature of head injuries.
“If you have got a head injury, be sure and take lots of time off to recover before you go back to activity,” Voaklander advised, “because subsequent head injuries are dangerous if your brain hasn’t had the time to heal itself.”
The next step in his research is to look at more specific sports, Voaklander said. He’s considering focusing his attention on equestrian sports and looking at the prevention of head injuries, since there has been very little work done in that area in Alberta.
Voaklander said he hopes the message about the severity of head injuries will reach families and children throughout Alberta.
“A rule of thumb — if someone does get a head injury — is (that) you wait from the time of the injury until all of your symptoms go away and then roughly double that again before you return to full activity,” Voaklander said.
“It is public awareness. I want to get the point home to treat head injuries seriously.”
Voaklander’s paper was published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine earlier this month.
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