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Sports Neurology - Impact Beyond the Playing Field

The principals of this burgeoning medical field will positively impact more than just athletes.

Sports neurology is benefitting from and contributing to a greater awareness of concepts such as neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form and organize synapse connections) and neuromodulation (delivering a targeted stimulus to alter nerve activity as a means for restoring function or relieving neurological symptoms). These principles have a longer history in stroke and rehabilitation as well as treatment of mood disorders, but they are beginning to be employed in the treatment of sports-related neurological injuries such as concussion.

In addition to treatment of neurological injury from sports, increasingly, the field of sports neurology involves the study and understanding of how the brain and nervous system work together to help people perform at their best. Beyond the athletic population, this burgeoning medical sub-specialty has helped to usher in a stronger focus on overall brain function and performance, (not just injury, and recovery), for everybody and every body – whether that body contains an athlete, a 9-to-5-er, or a retiree. Sports neurology assessments, followed by interventions employing neuromodulation and based on the concept of neuroplasticity have wide-ranging benefits for the general population, based on lessons we’re learning in athletes.

Athletes who play professionally or at the collegiate level comprise only a small fraction of the population that suffers from brain injuries or conditions, but they are popular focal points in our American culture. Using the social capital of sports elevates our ability to study the brain comprehensively. That means studying not only the injured brain, but also the healthy brain and benefits of brain optimization. Studying these things in athletes has clear ramifications for and provides the opportunity for extrapolation and benefit among a broader population: Literally everybody; no matter the individual age, lifestyle, or level of play.

Studying the effects of brain injury on brainwaves (as seen on EEG testing) in athletes, for example, has contributed to our understanding of how optimal and efficient brainwave activity can be associated with many aspects of optimal performance – whether that performance be on an athletic field, at work or school, or even in retirement. There are even likely relationships between brainwave efficiency and injury risk reduction. It’s early, but there are promising examples of how training the brain and neuromodulation can positively affect brainwave organization, and performance.

Naturally, as interest among famous athletes in the neurological contributions to optimal function and performance increases, so too does the general public’s curiosity in such matters. As a result, society is becoming more aware of the notion that our physical ability to do anything is not merely because we have or haven’t trained our bodies to do that thing. Instead, sports neurology has helped provide a bevy of evidence which shows that concepts like sleep hygiene, visual acuity, balance, the ability to focus and concentrate, and our speed of mental processing are all significant contributors to our overall health, wellness, and performance – throughout the course of our entire lives.

Indeed, sports neurology has the potential to impact the care and treatment every person should receive, whether or not they are a professional athlete. At present, many of our youth are first exposed to sports neurology by way of a neurological examination and assessment during a preseason “baseline” test for concussion. The concept being that if that individual has a possible, probable, or definite concussion the baseline assessment can be repeated for comparison purposes. Those comparisons provide useful information regarding diagnosis and/or can assist with return to play decisions. I would offer that the potential benefits of neurological “baselining” go far beyond a potential usefulness in individuals who might happen to have a suspected concussive injury during their season. We should be “baselining” (performing neurological assessments and educating on neurological health) and routinely repeating these assessments on a yearly basis in athletes and non-athletes alike. With this approach, sports neurology affords opportunities to screen for and catch evidence of neurological disorders early and provide early intervention – whether or not an individual suffered a concussion. It provides an opportunity to recognize evidence of gradual/subtle worsening of neurological function over time. And it provides an opportunity to train the brain when there are areas of poorer performance – improving and optimizing things like vision, balance, focus, concentration, speed of mental processing, reaction times and other contributors to performance. Again, individuals may not have had an injury, and they may not have a neurological diagnosis. But the screening and yearly assessments can identify individuals whose performance and function can be significantly improved with training. And the benefits are not limited to athletic pursuits. There are benefits to academic and professional performance as well. Perhaps most importantly, this kind of process affords the opportunity to reinforce the importance of neurological health across the lifespan. Our brains make us who we are. Neurological health and maintaining that health at optimal levels is, perhaps, the most important thing one can do for successful life, livelihood, and functional longevity.

It is an exciting time to be a sports neurologist. I remember no more than a decade or so ago when very few people outside of the research and academic world knew what sports neurology was. The “fandemonium” of sports in America has helped us change that, for the better. I genuinely believe that this increase in knowledge is to the benefit of every human – for successful aging and overall wellness across their entire lifespan.