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Concussions linked to academic struggles in UW-Madison students
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Concussions linked to academic struggles in UW-Madison students

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UW-Madison students with concussions reported 14 percent greater academic side effects than those with other kinds of injuries, a study found.

Campus researchers are now surveying Madison-area high school athletes in the weeks after they get concussions to more closely assess the educational toll.

“This is a very important time of their life, where they’re growing independent, making career decisions and planning a future,” said Traci Snedden, a UW-Madison assistant professor of nursing leading the research. “If their academic experience is affected because of their cognitive deficits, there potentially could be long-term ramifications.”

National discussion of concussions has centered on long-term physical effects such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease associated with aggression, depression and suicide, and linked to hits on the football field.

Last month, the family of former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez — who committed suicide in April, while serving a life sentence for murder — sued the team and the National Football League, saying his problems stemmed from CTE.

Little research has been done on shorter-term academic effects of concussions, especially in college students, Snedden said.

One conclusion from the study of UW-Madison students: Steps that pediatricians recommend when younger students return to school after concussions — such as wearing sunglasses, decreasing class load, taking tests in a quiet room and getting more time to finish projects — might apply to college students, too.

“We don’t have any (guidelines) right now for the college students, so they’re self-advocating what they might need, but often they don’t know what they need,” Snedden said. “They’re continuing to go to their high-level college courses, potentially not doing well in a high-stakes mid-term or final exam.”

Faculty can’t easily identify students with concussions, she said. “These students look as though they’re fine. They have no casts, no crutches.”

Last year, she and other researchers surveyed UW-Madison undergraduates who had concussions from any cause, not just sports, at any time since they started college. They also surveyed students with musculoskeletal injuries, such as broken bones, torn ligaments or sprains.

About 70 percent of the respondents were female. Many concussions came from recreational sports, falls on stairs or icy surfaces, bike, scooter or motor vehicle collisions and hitting heads on bunk beds or dorm ceilings.

The 60 students with concussions said they later had more academic struggles — such as a hard time paying attention, trouble managing their time, difficulty taking notes and getting nervous before tests — at a level 14 percent greater than those reported by 126 students with other injuries.

The survey didn’t look at grades or test scores. Snedden reported the findings in July at a brain injury research conference.

She and her colleagues are now recruiting high school athletes, mostly from the Madison and Milwaukee areas, to fill out weekly surveys about academic and functional activities for a month if they get concussions.

Unlike the UW-Madison survey, which didn’t ask students about the effects until more than a year, on average, after their injuries, the high school survey will be done in real time.


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