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With researchers continuing to gather more evidence on the links between sports and concussions, parents should be wary about signing their children up to participate in activities such as football and ice hockey. It’s no secret Americans love sports, but brain injuries have become a top concern for players, coaches, and parents.
Tragic stories of dementia, neurological conditions, and even suicide mean the bright Friday night lights can no longer blind those charged with young athletes’ well-being to the very real consequences of the concussion crisis in sports. From Pee-Wee football to the NFL, players are sustaining head injuries that could lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Even with that knowledge, it’s still no easy decision to forbid a child from participating in sports. After all, playing on a team is as much an American experience as watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Beyond their cultural significance, athletics offers a wealth of positive benefits, including being a source of relief for children struggling with their mental health. Improving mental health through physical activity then contributes to a positive cycle of overall health in the wake of America’s obesity epidemic.
Recognizing all there is to be gained from sports, how concerned should parents be about the concussion crisis in sports? What precautions can they take to protect young athletes?
What is CTE?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that experts link to trauma to the brain. While more people are talking about it these days, CTE is actually nothing new. For years, the medical community referred to it as dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk”. Experts referred to it as the latter because many believed it only affected boxers.
However, through studying the brains of athletes post mortem, researchers have learned boxers aren’t the only ones afflicted. Athletes from other high-contact sports, particularly football and ice hockey, have CTE as a result of sustaining repeated head injuries, according to an NPR report.
A number of athletes with CTE have reportedly committed or attempted suicide. One of the most well-known deaths is that of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson. Duerson was a successful businessman before a series of bad decisions — which experts now link to CTE — landed him $20 million in debt. In the midst of his financial woes, the NFL legend became uncharacteristically violent toward his family. Prior to taking his own life, Duerson requested that his brain be studied after his death.
Duerson’s death shined the national spotlight on CTE. In the years since, the medical community has done significant research, but because the brains of athletes can only be studied after they’ve died, there is still a lot unknown about CTE. In addition to suicide, some theories about the disease associate CTE with impulse control issues, mood disorders, and depression.
What is a Concussion?
The first step in protecting athletes against CTE is understanding the signs of a concussion. A concussion occurs when blunt trauma causes temporary interference in the brain’s normal functioning. Each time a person receives a jarring blow to the head or hits the ground hard, there is potential for a concussion.
Common signs of a concussion include headache, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, vomiting, amnesia, and unconsciousness. But be warned: it is possible for someone to sustain a concussion and exhibit just one or two symptoms. Just because an athlete never lost consciousness does not mean they didn’t suffer a concussion. Symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, sensitivity to light, irritability, difficulty sleeping and depression, may appear hours or days following a concussion.
How to Treat Concussions
If an athlete is showing signs of a concussion, it’s imperative to immediately cease activity and seek medical attention, according to an article by the Child Mind Institute. Young athletes may be eager to return to their sport, but it’s important to allow a concussion to fully heal. Returning to sports too soon could cause symptoms to worsen and prolong recovery time.
However, rather than strict rest, researchers are advocating for “active rehab.” Starting aerobic exercise and as-needed specialized therapy as soon as possible after a concussion can help speed up recovery.
The Child Mind Institute advises that even after a physician clears an athlete to resume play, parents, coaches, and teammates should keep an eye out for signs of post-concussion syndrome. Weeks or months after suffering a concussion, athletes may be dizzy, lethargic and unable to concentrate.
While parents who refuse to allow their children to play any sport due to concussion risks are in the minority, CBS News shared a study that revealed a growing number are limiting their children to certain sports which they deem “safe.” However, sports medicine experts worry there are some misconceptions.
According to a Harris poll conducted on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association, parents would predominantly keep their children from playing rugby, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, football, and wrestling. Osteopathic sports medicine physician Joelle Rehberg believes parents view sports that involve protective equipment as riskier for concussions, but that’s not always the case.
Rehberg, who spoke with CBS News, said cheerleading, especially at the youth level where participants are still developing the strength and skills to catch one another, is a high-risk activity that often flies under the radar. The potential dangers of football and ice hockey are obvious to most, but emergency room physician Dr. Robert Glatter told CBS News he wants parents to be aware of the heightened risk for concussions in girls soccer and girls basketball. Research suggests female athletes are more susceptible to concussions than their male counterparts, according to the Child Mind Institute.
Tips for Protection
In addition to doing their homework about the sports they allow their children to participate in, parents can help reduce head injury risks by ensuring their young athletes have proper and well-fitting protective gear such as helmets and mouth guards. Both Rehberg and Glatter said making sure children stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and develop strong neck muscles could prevent or minimize concussions.
Furthermore, the Child Mind Institute says parents should check to see if coaches are trained in concussion safety. Some schools are using a neurocognitive assessment tool called ImPACT to more effectively detect brain injuries. Athletes take a test prior to starting competition to establish a baseline for memory and reaction time. Then, if a concussion is suspected, the athlete can take the test again and an athletic trainer can compare the results.
Even with assessment tools, safety training, and proper equipment, parents should still be concerned about the concussion crisis in sports. Every mother and father must come to their own decision about the activities they allow their young athletes to participate in. The lessons children learn on the field can last a lifetime but so can the consequences of repeated head injuries.