Can a Concussion Cause Stress on the Heart?

brain scans

Although it is now widely accepted that concussions and other forms of head trauma incurred during athletic activities and sports competitions can have a direct and significant effect on a person’s brain function, recent research from the University of Regina shows that the heart is also significantly affected by concussions and head trauma.

The author of the study, J. Patrick Neary, Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology & Health Studies, examined how the heart is affected when the head takes a blow. Similar to other internal organs, the heart is controlled by the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), which resides in the neural network of the brain. The ANS manages all biological processes that humans don’t have to think about, which includes breathing, digestion, control over the dilation and constriction of blood vessels, and heart function.

Research shows that concussions result in symptoms that are synonymous with the disturbance of the ANS. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, vertigo, and blurry vision. Early brain–cardiac research shows that the number of contractions (beats) per minute had less variability. A normal heart rate has a range of 50-100 beats per minute, while the concussion heart had a range of 60-80 beats per minute.

This suggests that the signal from the brain to the heart is under tighter control when a concussion occurs. Tighter control over heart rate can help to stabilize how much blood is pumped from the heart each minute. Stabilizing cardiac output would prevent the over- or under-perfusion of blood pressure and flow to the brain and other internal organs, which ensures the brain receives the right amount of blood and pressure necessary to assist itself in the healing process.

Ultimately, Professor Neary hypothesizes that a reduced heart rate variability is likely a protective mechanism for the brain. His hypothesis is supported by his team’s recent research, which shows that there seems to be a “pressure alleviation” occurring in the blood pressure system when comparing a “normal” healthy brain with a concussed brain. Pressure alleviation is the ability of the body to adjust blood pressure back to normal when it is stressed by physical action.

Their study looked at contact-sport athletes who had to perform a squat-stand maneuver in which they squatted to 90 degrees with their legs for 10 seconds and then stood up for 10 seconds. This action was continued for five minutes. The results revealed that the control group alleviated more pressure / went back to normal faster and had a significantly greater variation in heart rate during the six to ten second period of squatting. Overall heart rate variation in the concussion group was significantly lower than healthy controls when standing.

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