Subconcussive Blows to the Head: A Formative Review of Short-term Clinical Outcomes

J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2016 May-Jun;31(3):159-66. doi: 10.1097/HTR.0000000000000138.


Background: Given questions about "lower thresholds" for concussion, as well as possible effects of repetitive concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and associated controversy, there is increasing interest in "subconcussive" blows and their potential significance.

Objective: A formative review with critical examination of the developing literature on subconcussive blows in athletes with an emphasis on clinical outcomes.

Methods: Studies of biomechanical, performance and/or symptom-based, and neuroimaging data were identified via PubMed search and critically reviewed. Five studies of symptom reporting/performance and 4 studies of neuroimaging were included.

Results: The relation between biomechanical parameters and diagnosed concussion is not straightforward (ie, it is not the case that greater and more force leads to more severe injury or cognitive/behavioral sequelae). Neuropsychological studies of subconcussive blows within a single athletic season have failed to demonstrate any strong and consistent relations between number and severity of subconcussive events and cognitive change. Recent studies using neuroimaging have demonstrated a potential cumulative effect of subconcussive blows, at least in a subset of individuals.

Conclusion: Human studies of the neurological/neuropsychological impact of subconcussive blows are currently quite limited. Subconcussive blows, in the short-term, have not been shown to cause significant clinical effects. To date, findings suggest that any effect of subconcussive blows is likely to be small or nonexistent, perhaps evident in a subset of individuals on select measures, and maybe even beneficial in some cases. Longer-term prospective studies are needed to determine if there is a cumulative dose effect.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletic Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Brain Concussion / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Neuroimaging*