Concussions: Are we using our heads?


Statistics can be mind-numbing. Some, though, are downright scary.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the annual incidence of football-related concussion in the United States is estimated at 300,000, and nearly 45,000 football-related head injuries were serious enough to be treated at U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009.

Researchers at the Nation­wide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and Ohio State University reported that 15.8 percent of football players sustaining a concussion severe enough to cause loss of consciousness returned to play the same day.

Lisa Bakhos, an ER physician in Neptune, N.J., said that although awareness has increased, many parents, coaches and players still don’t understand how serious concussions can be. Many often seem less concerned with the injury than with how soon kids can return to sports.

“They want to know if they can play tomorrow, and you’re just like, ‘No!’” she said. “It’s not just as simple as get up, shake it off and you’ll be fine. If they’re not treated properly, with rest, then they can have long-term problems.”

Those include learning difficulties, memory problems and chronic headaches.

A concussion means the brain has been jostled. Symp­toms aren’t always obvious and there usually is no loss of consciousness.

Physician Robert Cantu, a leading authority on sports head trauma, said, “If you had to, you could replace a knee or an elbow or a shoulder. But you can’t replace the brain. If you have a permanent impairment to the brain, that’s life-altering.”

Once downplayed as “having your bell rung,” concussions can lead to dementia and other problems such as depression.

The nature of the sport and pressure to act mentally and physically tough only contributes to the problem. Players are taught from an early age the importance of being a warrior and overcoming adversity and pain.

Joey De Stefano suffered an apparent concussion sometime during a football game early in the 2009 high school season in California. He did his best to ignore it and tough it out even after another jarring hit in practice the following week left him nauseated and dizzy.

The effects became noticeable enough that his coaches took De Stefano’s helmet away so he couldn’t leave the sideline. After the game, he couldn’t recall where he had parked his car or even remember who had won the game. His worried mom took him to the hospital.

When the 2010 football season arrived, it did so without De Stefano, a senior who still suffers from headaches and neck pain.

He quit because he saw what had happened to another Bay Area athlete, Matt Blea, a player who almost died last Thanks­giving after suffering a brain injury.

Gregg Easterbrook on ESPN.com said, “Congressional hearings have increased the pressure on the NFL to take action to prevent concussions—the league still refused to mandate concussion-reducing helmets. If the NFL mandated such headgear, colleges would follow.”

The NFL also won’t mandate the double-sided mouthguard, which would almost certainly reduce concussion incidence.

“While buying $200 advanced-design helmets is a problem for many public high school systems, $8 double-sided mouthguards could be put into every high school football player’s mouth affordably,” Easter­brook said.

“And it’s high school, not the NFL, where many of the concussion problems are—partly because slightly more than a million boys play high school football, versus fewer than 2,000 players in the NFL, and because medical treatment is rudimentary at many high schools, while players feel pressure to return to the game with a concussion to prove their manhood.”

An estimated 1.2 million youth play high school football nationally with about 55,000 concussions occurring each year. Football has always been a risky sport, but that’s an awful lot of concussions.

According to a Brain Injury News and Information Blog, “Mandatory pre-season testing and retesting of players once a concussion or suspected concussion takes place is necessary to prevent premature return to play decisions.

“There is nothing mild about a mild traumatic brain injury.”

A quote by Bertrand Russell also seems applicable: “It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”


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