Concussions, like many injuries, exist on a spectrum. In the mildest cases, the injured are fortunate enough to avoid any loss of consciousness or serious lasting effects. Soon after the concussion, they resume their daily life, free of further complaints as if it had never occurred. Meanwhile, the worst concussions can either be deadly or result in irreparable harm, beginning with a loss of consciousness and later leading to life-changing physical or mental damage. Furthermore, research is beginning to suggest that there may be a link between even mild concussions and accelerated brain aging.
For many years, the neurological community lacked concrete data on the effects of recurring head trauma. The most severe concussions tend to attract the most attention, and for good reason: they may lead to hospitalization, and in some cases death. Meanwhile, mild issues may not be diagnosed at all. This is alarming, as all concussions — no matter how mild — have the potential to produce lasting damage.
While a lack of understanding has previously prevented many people from seeking the extensive care they need after seemingly mild concussions, that’s about to change.
As a greater volume of research delves into the serious consequences of brain injuries once deemed ‘minor,’ it becomes clear that these warrant as much attention and care as any other type of trauma. To that end, we’ve highlighted a few of the most noteworthy findings on mild concussions and brain aging, as well as other common long-term problems.
Defining Mild Concussions
Given the wide range of symptoms that can accompany concussions, it can be difficult to accurately define them as mild, moderate, or severe. In fact, experts at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons argue that no concussion can realistically be referred to as ‘minor.’
Others believe that, while terms such as concussion and mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) are often used interchangeably, they should be distinct. The Zurich Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport, for example, defines concussion as a “complex pathophysiological process affecting the brain.” According to this group, a typical concussion will resolve while bypassing any significant imaging abnormalities.
To qualify as mild, a concussion should not lead to any significant loss of consciousness. Instead, the brain injury may be followed by the occasional instance of impaired memory, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light or noise. If a concussion really is mild, these complaints should be resolved within three months.
What Are the Long-Term Impacts of Mild Brain Injuries?
Even after the initial symptoms resolve, mild brain injuries can have lingering effects. These include everyday sources of discomfort, as well as a higher risk of developing conditions such as dementia later in life. Key problems associated with concussions include:
Despite being a persistently common complaint in those who have suffered mild brain injuries, headaches remain poorly understood as they relate to concussions. Research suggests that the biochemical changes prompted by TBI resemble those typically seen in patients with migraines.
Many patients are able to get by with medications such as analgesics for the first few weeks after a brain injury. At that point, the headaches may resolve on their own.
Unfortunately, this problem often continues, with one concerning study revealing that a shocking 91 percent of mild TBI sufferers continue to experience headaches one year after the initial injury. What’s more, for half of the respondents, these headaches were severe enough to be categorized as migraines.
While many people assume that the negative effects of concussions primarily involve memory and cognition, many people also suffer lasting emotional concerns. These are, as a noteworthy Practical Neurology study explains, more common in those who have already experienced psychiatric disorders prior to suffering brain injuries.
New psychiatric problems often stem from the physical trauma of the injury. They may also, however, take place based on the psychological reaction to the incident that caused the injury in the first place. For example, if a car accident leads to brain injury, the victim may develop an anxiety disorder not only because of physical brain damage, but also, because the crash itself was so terrifying.
Thankfully, treatment options abound. Those with post-TBI depression may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as well as targeted medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Meanwhile, physician-supervised neurorehabilitation may be one of the best options for people who suffer anxiety due to brain injuries.
Sometimes caused by mental health concerns but often occurring separate from other symptoms, sleep disturbances are common after concussion. Brain injuries can interrupt sleep by damaging melatonin production, creating chronic pain, or even prompting sleep apnea. As such, treatments vary significantly based on the identified cause. Unfortunately, over time, continued sleep problems can lead to a variety of other health concerns.
Structural Changes to the Brain
Experts have long suspected that even mild concussions can have a huge impact on how the brain functions as it ages. Now, results from a study conducted by the NIA Intramural Research Program’s Brain Aging and Behavior Section reveal that brain damage is visible in patients multiple decades after they’ve suffered concussions.
Issues identified in this study included damage to the white matter in the hippocampus, as well as the frontal and temporal lobes. These adaptations are not, however, associated with changes to cognitive ability. This may indicate that the brain is able to adapt when needed. Still, cause for concern remains, as the impacted areas pinpointed in this study tend to be the most vulnerable to age-related changes associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Research published in The Lancet takes a closer look at dementia and brain injuries, strengthening evidence for the link between these concerns. What’s more, this study reveals that the age at which the concussion occurs may play heavily into the severity of its impact later in life. In this study, people who suffered concussions during their 20s were far more likely to eventually develop dementia than those who were concussed in their 30s. In this light, the connection between mild concussions and brain aging is plain to see.
Working With a D.C. Personal Injury Lawyer After a Concussion
Did somebody else’s negligence cause you to suffer a concussion? Seek the damages you deserve with help from a respected D.C. personal injury lawyer. The team at Regan Zambri Long PLLC can help you obtain compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and more. Take the first step today — contact us to schedule a case consultation.