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Death of Ex-NFL Star Highlights Need for Vigilence on Concussions

Education of Parents and Athletes Is Critical


The finding by a neuropathologist that brain damage from repeated concussions suffered by former NFL star Andre Waters likely led to his depression and ultimate death by suicide in November 2006 highlights once again the critical need for parents and youth athletes to become educated and proactive about concussions.

According to a January 18, 2007 article in The New York Times, Mr. Water's brain tissue was similar to that of an 85-year old man with early-stage Alzheimer's, degenerative damage the neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, said was either caused or drastically accelerated by the repeated concussions Mr. Waters suffered during his football career.

While youth athletes likely suffer far fewer concussions than pro football players like Mr. Waters (who told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1994 that he lost count at 15), nearly half of all high school football players in one recent study admitted after the season to having experienced concussion symptoms at some point during the season (other studies suggest one in five athletes playing a contact sport will suffer a concussion).

While medical science is only beginning to understand the links between multiple concussions and increased risks for afflictions like Alzheimer's, depression, memory loss, cognitive loss and dementia, even a single concussion to a child's growing brain can impair his ability to reach his full cognitive potential, inhibiting his ability to learn and undermining his classroom performance, cause personality changes, behavioral, emotional and attention deficit disorders; and accelerate the natural process of brain degeneration that accompanies aging.

Once an athlete suffers a concussion, the risk of suffering a second concussion is three to four times greater. Usually, the second concussion requires less of a blow and a longer recovery time. The risk of concussion increases with each subsequent concussion. As one mother of a brain-injured athlete said, "I never knew that concussions have a calling card."

Because concussions are so difficult to prevent and to diagnose (symptoms sometimes don't show up until days after injury); because the only treatment for concussion is rest, and because the death rate for youth athletes who suffer a second concussion before the symptoms associated with the first have cleared (a condition called Second Impact Syndrome) is nearly 50 percent, parents need to be proactive on the subject of concussions.

Here are some important steps parents can take:

  1. Learn the myriad signs of a concussion (contrary to popular belief, a child does not need to experience a loss of consciousness to have suffered a concussion);

  2. Seek medical attention (ideally by a medical doctor with head injury training) if signs are present;

  3. Monitor their child over time for signs of neurobehavioral abnormalities;

  4. Strictly adhere to return to play guidelines such as those developed at the 2nd International Conference on Concussion in Sport (including receiving medical clearance before returning to the playing field);

  5. Observe him closely whenever he is playing for signs suggesting brain injury;

  6. Emphasize to their child that shaking off a concussion is not a badge of courage and that failing to immediately report or underreport post-concussion symptoms may place him at risk of a life-threatening brain injury (two recent studies clearly establish that high school football players significantly underreport concussions);

  7. Push for increased training among coaches, officials and athletic trainers in recognizing concussions, such as through the use of the Standardized Assessment of Concussion Tool, and about return-to-play guidelines;

  8. Ask their child's school to conduct neurological tests on all athletes in contact or collision sports before every season to provide a baseline to be used as a benchmark for comparison purposes should an athlete sustain a concussion. For between $300 and $400, a school can use a computer test to measure cognitive functioning in athletes. About 1,500 high schools, colleges and professional sports teams across the country are already using such tests.

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