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Greg Webb
Greg Webb
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Concussions, Children and Sports – Know the Risks

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As summer comes to a close, pre-season football practices are in full swing. Here in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia football team is practicing, as are high school and youth teams. The NFL is in full swing and we are all abuzz about fall sports. With any sporting activities come risks, including more serious ones like traumatic brain injuries.

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) have become more a part of the discussion of football related injuries in the past five years or so. But TBIs, which include concussions, are not unique to football. They happen in many sports and can occur in everyday falls and accidents. The biggest risk of a sports-related head injury may not be the immediate headache or loss of consciousness, but the prolonged effects and symptoms that can show up for months and even years later. Sometimes, that concussion your 12 year-old sustains in youth football could lead to symptoms later on in life.

Because football-related brain injuries have been getting more public attention, there is a renewed scrutiny on the large helmet manufacturers. The helmet manufaccturers, however, put warnings on their helmets. One of those warnings looks like this:

No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.” The wording of this warning — one of the more visible acknowledgments of the sport’s risk — is governed largely by lawyers, product engineers and the organization that creates the standards helmet manufacturers follow, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or NOCSAE. One helmet maker, Schutt Sports, uses this explicit warning on its helmets. Other companies, including Riddell, the largest manufacturer of helmets in the country and the official helmet manufacturer for the N.F.L., are not being as explicit about the risks. (NYT, 8/4/2013)

At its core, this is a conversation about prevention and risk reduction. The warning is correct—the only way to prevent sports-related concussions is to not participate in sports. If one lives in a cocoon, then you may avoid all injury – and most of the joy of life. But note that young children also receive concussions from bicycling accidents and other typical childhood mishaps – like just being an active kid. The difference, however, is the chances of injury go up dramatically with the speed and potential force that can be applied in the sport or activity.

The more palatable solution for reducing the risk of concussion is for youth leagues and schools to adopt the concussion training programs developed by National Alliance for Youth Sports, NAYS. School systems have to require their coaches to undergo training and promote concussion awareness. Parents have to be willing to acknowledge the risks, learn about the symptoms of concussions, and insist that coaches, schools and community leagues use the NAYS training. And children have to be educated about the dangers of youth sports in age-appropriate ways, and to let their parent(s) know if they are having symptoms (like headaches, drowsiness, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, dizziness, and memory issues, to name a few).

At the professional level, sports-related TBIs are getting more media attention in the wake of several recent lawsuits. As a result, helmet manufacturers are looking at warning labels more carefully. The concern is that the severity of the warning will have an adverse effect on potential athletes- i.e., tell us about a risk and we may choose to play it safe. That’s not necessarily true for sports—football players are driven to play or, at young ages, often urged on by parents. Injuries may happen in spite of the best training programs, diligent coaches and observant parents. Parents need to know the symptoms of traumatic brain injury and work with their child’s coach, doctor and school to make sure he or she recovers safely.

The CDC estimates that between 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur each year in sports-related activities. “Coaches and parents need to be aware that children are at risk,” says Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s Injury Center. “You can’t tell kids to shake it off, to play through the pain or that they’ll be fine. Those mantras we heard growing up are not appropriate. Concussions need to be taken seriously and parents and coaches need to know what to do.” (CDC)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that children aged 0 to 4 years, adolescents aged 15 to 19 years, and adults aged 65 years and older are most likely to sustain a TBI. Every year about half a million (473,947) children aged 0 to 14 years visit the emergency department for a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Concussion and TBI awareness is important for all children, even those who do not participate in athletics. My colleague, Bryan Slaughter, addresses the topic of concussions in a series of articles for parents in his Child Safety Blog: http://childsafetyblog.org/?s=concussions&submit=Search There you will find specific details about youth sports, symptoms and other important information on concussions. You also can visit my law firm’s website for TBI resources at: http://www.michiehamlett.com

Important Resources:

CDC: Concussions Signs and Symptoms http://www.cdc.gov/Concussion/

CDC: Concussions in Sports http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/sports/

New York Times: Guide to Concussions http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/concussion/overview.html?inline=nyt-classifier

National Alliance for Youth Sports: Concussion Training Program for Coaches http://www.nays.org/article/10773-NAYS-releases-new-%E2%80%93-and-free-%E2%80%93-online-Concussion-Training-program-for-member-coaches