Hypothermia May Help Athletes, Others with Concussions


A new surgical technique involving hypothermia may benefit NFL players and other athletes who suffer concussions. The ground-breaking research involves a technique that cools the patient’s brain to minimize damage following a concussion.

Each year, more than one million Americans experience a concussion. Concussions, whether they are the result of a sporting event, accident, or combat, can result in permanent loss of mental processes. Until recently, scientists had no compelling evidence to show whether concussions involved structural damage to the brain tissue or whether physical changes that impair the way brain cells function were the cause of the mental loss. A study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University published in August 2009 reported on such evidence, showing that concussions involve brain damage. This finding can impact how such brain injuries are treated.

Scientists at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, are developing a surgical treatment that involves the use of hypothermia in selected areas of the brain. The endovascular intra-arterial cooling technique allows surgeons to rapidly preserve the injured area of the brain by lowering its temperature and thus minimizing damage.


Mark Preul, MD, Barrow’s director of Neurosurgery Research, noted in the hospital’s news release that “this work is targeted currently at severe injuries to the brain like massive strokes or trauma,” but that he and his team are “working to develop ways to be more proactive about treating brain injuries like sports concussions that may have been under-treated in the past.”

Concussions are a major problem among athletes who participate in certain sports, including football, hockey, and soccer. According to a study reported in the July 2007 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine, football is associated with the most brain injuries, and 39 percent of high school and collegiate football players who had experience catastrophic head injuries between 1989 and 2002 were still playing with neurologic symptoms when their injuries occurred.

Given the recent reports associating head injuries incurred by NFL players and the development of dementia, as well as the increase in concussions and other head trauma experienced by war veterans, the availability of the new hypothermia technique would be welcome news. Dr. Preul noted that he and his team believe the approach “could translate into faster clinical response and improved outcomes for patients with brain injuries, including athletes, military personnel and trauma patients.”

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St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center news release, Nov. 13, 2009