Concussed athletes allowed to return before healed

College athletes who suffer head injuries are being given medical clearance to return to play before their brains are fully healed, a new study warns.

Brain scans revealed that varsity athletes in Canada who recently suffered a concussion had visible changes in their brain structure after they were already given the go-ahead to return to the playing field.

Concussions caused by contact sports have been linked to severe neurological disorders including CTE, Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Experts warn that continuing play after a potentially damaging head injury could increase a player’s risk of neurological diseases even more. 

The research suggests that there is a need for new requirements to determine when an athlete is physically ready to play again after suffering a concussion.  

Researchers at St Michael’s University in New Jersey found that athletes are often given the go-ahead to return to play after recovering from a concussion before their brains have fully healed (stock image)

This report builds on a study released Tuesday which shows that contact sports severely impact young athletes’ brain structure and function.

Both come at a time of growing concern that contact sports are causing significant long-term brain damage.  

In July a study performed on deceased NFL players found that 99 percent of them showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which causes symptoms such as memory loss, vertigo, depression and dementia. 

Researchers from St Michael’s Hospital in New Jersey and the David L MacInctosh Sport Medicine Clinic at the University of Toronto used an advanced MRI to measure brain structure and function in 27 athletes in the first week after a concussion and again when they had been medically cleared to return to play.

Those scans were compared with the scans of a group of 27 uninjured varsity athletes. 

The team found that those noticeable brain changes seen in the first MRI scan after the concussion were still present when athletes were told they could return to play.

Specifically they noticed persistent difference in the structure of participants’ white matter – which is what facilitates communication in different parts of the brain. 

They also spotted differences in brain activity related to vision and planning.

Athletes who took longer to recover showed changes in areas of the brain associated with bodily movement. 


Contact sports have a significant impact on young athletes’ brain structure and function, a new study has shown. 

Researchers at St Michael’s Hospital in New Jersey found that body contact and brain damage are directly correlated – with sports that involve more contact causing more significant changes. 

The research team looked at preseason brain scans of 65 total varsity athletes. 

Of those 23 athletes played collision sports, meaning that players have routine and purposeful body-to-body contact. 

Another 22 played contact sports, meaning contact is allowed but isn’t an integral part of the game. And the final 20 played non-contact sports. 

None of the participants were otherwise unhealthy. 

The team found that the athletes who played collision and contact sports had visible differences in structure, function and chemical markers than typically associated with brain injury.

Their brains also looked considerably different than athletes who did not play contact sports. 

The research was conducted on a group of male and female varsity athletes in seven different contact and non-contact sports.

The authors said this was meant to demonstrate the relevance of the findings for the overall sporting community, not just traditional high-risk sports such as hockey and football. 

The findings suggest that following a concussion, changes in the brain persist even after other symptoms have resolved, said lead author Dr Nathan Churchill.

‘This is the first concrete evidence we have that the brain is lagging behind in terms of recovery from a concussion,’ he said. 

‘Our study shows that the neurobiological consequences of concussion may outlast the symptoms we’re typically looking for when determining whether an athlete is ready to return to play.’

The researchers noticed that the areas showing differences at medical clearance are especially concerning, as vision, planning and physical coordination are critical for athletes to avoid re-injury during sport participation. 

Though they noted that concern, authors said the study did not directly examine whether athletes would be at risk of further injury by returning to play when these brain changes were still present.

Further research is needed to determine whether or not athletes need more time between acute injury and returning to play to fully recover.

‘We want to emphasize that, in general, the health benefits of sport participation still outweigh the risk of concussion,’ said Dr Tom Schweizer, head of the Neuroscience Research Program and a co-author of the paper. 

‘Our findings help us to better understand how the brain changes over the course of recovery, which will in turn help to guide concussion management. 

‘The more we know about concussion, the better we can reduce potential risks.’

This study received funding from Defense Research & Development Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Military and Veterans Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Siemens Canada Ltd.