Flying After Concussion and Symptom Recovery in College Athletes and Military Cadets

JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Nov 2;3(11):e2025082. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.25082.


Importance: Concussions are a common occurrence in young athletes. Hypobaric hypoxemia, such as that experienced during airplane travel, can potentially cause alterations to cerebral blood flow and increased neuroinflammatory response. It remains unknown whether flying early after a concussion may influence the clinical course of injury.

Objective: To determine whether there is an association between concussion recovery and airplane travel in collegiate athletes and military cadets.

Design, setting, and participants: This cohort study was conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and US Department of Defense Concussion Assessment, Research, and Education Consortium from August 3, 2014, to September 13, 2018. Participant groups were categorized by those who flew within 72 hours of injury and those who did not fly. All participants included in the final analyses had complete data of interest and only 1 injury during the study. Data analysis was performed from September 2018 to March 2020.

Main outcomes and measures: Recovery outcome measures were defined as time (in days) from injury to return to activity, school, and baseline symptoms. Symptom and headache severity scores were derived from the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool-Third Edition. Scores for both groups were taken at baseline and a median of 2 days after injury.

Results: A total of 92 participants who flew (mean [SD] age, 19.1 [1.2] years; 55 male [59.8%]) and 1383 participants who did not fly (mean [SD] age, 18.9 [1.3] years; 809 male [58.5%]) were included in the analysis of symptom recovery outcomes (analysis 1). Similarly, 100 participants who flew (mean [SD] age, 19.2 [1.2] years; 63 male [63.0%]) and 1577 participants who did not fly (mean [SD] age, 18.9 [1.3] years; 916 male [58.1%]) were included in the analysis of symptom severity outcomes (analysis 2). No significant group differences were found regarding recovery outcome measures. Likewise, there were no group differences in symptom (estimated mean difference, 0.029; 95% CI, -0.083 to 0.144; P = .67) or headache (estimated mean difference, -0.007; 95% CI, -0.094 to 0.081; P = .91) severity scores.

Conclusions and relevance: Airplane travel early after concussion was not associated with recovery or severity of concussion symptoms. These findings may help guide future recommendations on flight travel after concussion in athletes.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Air Travel / statistics & numerical data
  • Aircraft
  • Athletes / statistics & numerical data*
  • Athletic Injuries / complications
  • Brain Concussion / diagnosis*
  • Brain Concussion / epidemiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Recovery of Function / physiology*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sports
  • Students
  • Young Adult