Every week we hear about another high school or college athlete who suffered a concussion in practice or during a game.
Now there’s even more publicity about head injuries because of the movie “Concussion,” which details how forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered the brain injuries of former NFL player Mike Webster. Local parents are raising concerns about the long-term side effects of repeated concussions that they hear about in the media.
But what are the real, lasting risks for student-athletes who play impact sports such as football, lacrosse, and soccer? Should parents pull their kids from sports to prevent long-term brain damage?
There are still many unanswered questions about how head injuries affect the brain during a person’s lifetime, but what we do know can help keep your kids safer on the field and in practice.
What are the long-term effects of repeated concussions?
We know that there can be physical, emotional, and mental ramifications from long-term, repeated head injuries. Admittedly, we don’t have all the answers regarding the long-term effects at this point, but research is underway, such as the work being conducted through our Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair.
Occasionally, parents have come to us concerned that their children will develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive, degenerative disease that affects the brain – after a few hits to the head during practice and games. However, there is no evidence that suffering concussions during sports radically predisposes a child to developing CTE.
That said, we know there are some pro football players who have been adversely affected by repeated head injuries. Some of the more famous cases include Mike Webster and Junior Seau. From autopsy reports, we know these men suffered from CTE.
There’s a good chance there are biological characteristics that affect our risk for developing CTE. We have not yet been able to do that kind of genetic research with NFL players. There’s a lot we don’t know about CTE, but it’s very important for people in organized sports to learn about this disease.
What about post-concussion syndrome?
We believe that about 10 to 20 percent of young people who get concussions develop post-concussion syndrome – symptoms that just won’t go away. This is absolutely not CTE. With this condition, kids still have symptoms four to six weeks after suffering a concussion. There are a variety of interventions to help these kids, but they need personal care from concussion specialists.
It is critical that children be removed from play after a concussion. If they get another concussion before they recover, the brain can be severely damaged.
Unfortunately, there is a real-life example of what can happen when an athlete is not promptly removed from play after a concussion. Zackery Lystedt is the signature patient for youth concussion legislation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. (in Texas, the legislation is called Natasha’s Law). Zackery suffered a concussion in 2006 during the first half of a junior high school football game, yet he stayed on the field. On the last play of the game, Zackery made the winning stop on defense. He then collapsed on the field, seizing and suffering bilateral hematomas.
Zackery survived, but his recovery was long and painful. The situation may have been avoided had he been forced to sit out after his concussion rather than allowed to “shake it off” and continue playing.
Ample recovery time after a concussion is extremely important – parents need to be aware of this. The younger the child, the more important the need to gradually return to play and only after all symptoms have cleared away.
Should I pull my child out of sports?
Sports are very important for keeping people healthy. They’re one of the ways we can combat America’s epidemic of obesity – by getting more kids involved in exercise.
Kids learn life lessons on the playing field that parents and educators can’t teach. They learn the value of teamwork; how to perform under pressure; how to recover from defeat; how to work with confidence; and how to stand up for themselves and say, “I don’t feel right, and I need help.”
Parents should not panic and pull their kids out of sports for fear of concussions. But parents do need to be involved and talk to the coaches:
Does the team have a trainer?
How often are helmets reconditioned and how often are new ones purchased?
What is the return-to-play strategy at this school?
Do preseason concussion baseline tests improve safety?
Most high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area do preseason baseline tests to assess an athlete’s brain function before practices begin. However, the accuracy of the tests is debatable. Unfortunately, some students falsify their responses so they don’t have to sit out. But a good neuropsychologist can tell when a person is faking.
There is no need for pre-participation imaging tests like CT scans for the vast majority of student-athletes.
How can I help protect my child against concussions?
Keep your eyes open at your child’s games. You know your child, and you know when he or she isn’t acting right.Some student-athletes say they feel fine in order to hide their symptoms and return to play – there’s a lot of pressure on kids to perform week after week, and they don’t want to “let the team down.”
If your student-athlete is showing the symptoms below, regardless if the child admits it, there could be something wrong in his or her brain:
- Appears dazed or stunned
- Has clumsy movements
- Is confused about assignments or field position
- Forgets instructions
- Answers questions slowly
- Loses consciousness (even briefly)
- Exhibits changes in mood, behavior, or personality
- Is unable to remember things from before their head trauma
Let your student-athlete know it’s critical to tell someone when he or she doesn’t feel right. Playing through an injury that affects the brain could result in a potentially disastrous situation.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s coach or athletic trainer about concussion care and return-to-play procedures. Feel free to reach out to us if you have questions about concussions or how to approach the subject when it comes to your child.