Contact Sports Don’t Put Neurocognitive Performance At Risk


From football to karate – concerns have been growing in recent years that contact sports such as these are not only responsible for repetitive head injuries but are also associated with long-term neurocognitive impairment. However, these concerns appear unfounded, as confirmed in a study presented at the World Congress of Neurology.

Contact sports such as football, wrestling, boxing and karate are associated with an increased risk of head injury, a factor commonly suspected of leading to long-term consequences for neurocognitive function. As shown by a study presented at the XXIII World Congress of Neurology (WCN) in Kyoto, these concerns appear to be groundless.

“Although the long-term implications of concussions and sub-concussive impacts are an increasing worry, their relative impact has had little research to date,” explained the study’s lead author Kathryn L. O’Connor from the University of Michigan. “Our study shows that participating in sports like these does not appear to be independently associated with lower neurocognitive performance when accounting for an individual’s current sport activity, sex, and previous concussions.”

In the study conducted as part of the CARE (Concussion Assessment, Research and Education) consortium, a group of researchers surveyed the amount of time that 10,265 military cadets spent participating in contact sports. Afterwards, the voluntary subjects were evaluated in a special neurocognitive assessment designed to look at sport-related head impact exposure.

The 30-minute, computer based ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive) test provides norm-referenced data for men and women ranging in age from 17 to 26 and not only records different symptoms but also looks at neurocognitive parameters such as reaction time as well as visual and verbal memory performance.

Additional data was connected using the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI-18) – in which participants self-report on somatisation, depression and anxiety – and the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool, SCAT.

After controlling for current sports activity, sex, and concussion history, it transpired that contact/collision sport exposure was in fact associated with better verbal and visual memory performance and above-average motor capability. There were no signs of lower neurocognitive performance or impaired symptom scores among contact sports participants.

“Contact or collision sports do not present an independent risk, above and beyond previous concussion, for impaired neurocognitive performance,” Kathryn L. O’Connor concluded.

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