Concussion in sport: Balancing fear and concern with evidence-based information

With the constant focus on concussion have come growing and inaccurate fears about the injury and its potential effects.

By Anthony P. Kontos, PhD

It is hard to imagine the world of sports just 10 years ago, when the issue of concussion was just starting to hit our collective radars. Fast forward to the present, and it is equally hard to imagine a day going by in the world of sports without the mention of concussion. In fact, during the past few days I have been thinking about writing this article the following concussion-related events were covered in the media:

  • Countless trailers for the new “Concussion” movie on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) featuring Will Smith.
  • Dozens of fantasy sports tickers at the bottom of the screen indicating that certain professional athletes were out and for how long as a result of a concussion.
  • A story about how concussions are overlooked in the sport of competitive cheerleading.
  • An announcement of new soccer heading guidelines for young players to prevent concussions in soccer.

For the sake of brevity, I will stop there. In short, concussion has become ubiquitous in our culture, both in and out of sport. With this constant focus on concussion have come growing and inaccurate fears about the injury and its potential effects. In our concussion clinic, parents commonly ask if their kids will develop CTE from playing sports like youth football and ice hockey. Soccer coaches I meet ask if the newest soft headgear will prevent concussions in their sport. Although it is good that parents, coaches and athletes are aware of concussions and its potential effects, at times it seems as though our focus on concussion may have swung from a lack of awareness to hyper-awareness based on limited and often sensationalized information. In fact, in a recent survey of over 2,000 adults, 1 in 4 said they would not let their kids play contact sports because of fear of concussions.

To be clear, no one wants a return to the not-too-distant past when everyone thought you had to lose consciousness to have a concussion (which only represents 10 percent of all concussions), smelling salts were standard on-field treatment to “shake off the cobwebs,” and athletes from youth to professional sports were returning to the fields and courts immediately following a concussion, potentially risking serious injury. However, as psychology professionals, we need to help balance the fear and concern about this injury with evidence-based information. To that end, my colleagues from Divs. 19, 22, 31 and 40 and I developed the Concussion Toolkit for Psychologists, which pulls together relevant, empirically based information about this injury from a variety of perspectives — sport, military, advocacy, etc. Other evidence-based online resources on concussion include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s HEADS UP Concussion education program and UPMC’s ReThink Concussions™.

Our empirical knowledge of concussion has grown tremendously during the past decade. As psychology professionals, we need to translate this information to the general public and media, our patients and clients, as well as our colleagues. In so doing, we can help build an evidence-based awareness of this injury to counter the fears and concerns that pervade about this injury.