Concussing Our Kids, One Hit At a Time

While pro sports finally fess up to the dangers of high-impact athletics, trainers, coaches, parents and lawmakers struggle to curb head injuries that are even more dangerous for kids.

Concussing Our Kids, One Hit At a Time

Natasha Helmick goes up for a header during a soccer match and gets speared in the left temple by an opponent. The 14-year-old, a talented center midfielder playing in the choice Lake Highlands Girls Classic League, crumples to the ground. She can't see anything out of her left eye. Her coach asks if she's okay, but Natasha lies and says she's good to go. The coach puts her back into the lineup and she plays the remainder of the game, even though one eye sees darkness while floaters and sparkly objects dance in front of the other. She plays later that day, too, still without full eyesight. Her vision will eventually return, but five years and four concussions later, she's unable to recall much of her childhood.

Speaking to her now, you wouldn't know that Natasha, who was forced to give up an athletic scholarship to Texas State University-San Marcos, is a brain-damaged 19-year-old. "Academically," says her mother, Micky Helmick, "everything is three times harder."

Across the country, people have awakened to the sometimes irreversible damage of concussions, especially in high-impact professional sports. With much of the attention focused on the National Football and National Hockey leagues, reporting by Village Voice Media, which publishes the Observer, has revealed even more dire consequences for youth athletes, who are bigger and more aggressive than in past generations and often play year-round.

Natasha Helmick's athletic career effectively ended in the Lake Highlands Girls Classic League.
Mark Graham
Natasha Helmick's athletic career effectively ended in the Lake Highlands Girls Classic League.
Head injuries derailed Kayla Meyer's hockey career -- and her health.
Chuck Kajer
Head injuries derailed Kayla Meyer's hockey career -- and her health.

The effects of a concussion can be more devastating for young people; doctors say that until a person is in his early to mid-20s, his brain is not fully developed and can't take the same level of trauma as an adult brain can. Postmortem analysis, the only surefire way to measure concussions' devastating effects, shows that repeated blows to the head may be linked with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and a number of other fatal diseases. And even a young athlete who doesn't exhibit outward signs of a concussion (headaches, dizziness, vomiting, temporary amnesia) can still experience changes in brain activity similar to those in a player who has been clinically diagnosed with a concussion, making the challenge of managing head injuries even more difficult for trainers and coaches, who are often part-time and under-trained.

Twenty state governments and the District of Columbia have signed concussion legislation this year alone, prohibiting athletes from returning to play until cleared by a licensed physician. But the ImPACT test, widely regarded as the go-to neurological exam to measure concussive blows, doesn't always accurately gauge a player's readiness to return to action.

Meanwhile, as attorneys debate how the new concussion laws will play out, kids like Natasha Helmick, whose memory struggles sometimes resemble those of an elderly person, continue to battle a condition that puts parents who want the best for their children in an interesting position: Would they have pushed them be standouts in athletics if they realized that in some cases, their kids could be harmed for life by their participation in elite sports?


For Ali Champness, it was a freak ball kicked into her face by her own goalie in practice that turned her life upside down. The 14-year-old freshman, who'd already made junior varsity at Garces Memorial, a Catholic high school in Bakersfield, California, told her parents the sting went away after a little while. Two days later, though, on the way to a game, Ali complained of a headache and dizziness.

The ball had only "brushed across the front of [Ali's] face," says  her mother, Kim Champness. "It was not a hard hit at all, but right after that, she started stuttering."

Ali saw a doctor, who discovered a number of serious problems. In the past, a "bell ringer" was considered no different from a cut or a sprained ankle: part of the game. Until a few years ago, the NFL's medical committee on concussions published studies that concluded players were not suffering long-term damage from head trauma incurred during athletic competition.

The lack of awareness carried over to the training rooms of every sport, and athletes were prematurely sent back into action. Years later, it became obvious that many of them were losing their minds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year. Out of this figure, about 235,000 are hospitalized and 50,000 die, according to the CDC.

"Ninety percent of concussions went undiagnosed," Chris Nowinski, of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, says. "In fact, today you can talk to an athlete and ask the amount of concussions they've had and give them the actual definition, and that number will increase."

Nowinski, a former World Wrestling Entertainment pro and author of Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, founded the Sports Legacy Institute with neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu. The foundation works with Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in performing post-death pathology on brains donated by former athletes.

One of the latest specimens examined was that of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who earlier this year, following years of dementia and depression, shot himself to death in the chest so his brain would be preserved. Neurologists later confirmed that Duerson had been afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to the total amount of distress a brain receives during a lifetime. Because a concussed person may not always exhibit classic symptoms such as headaches and nausea, CTE is, in essence, an invisible killer that can cause the brain of a 35-year-old to resemble that of an 80-year-old.

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13 comments
Vitaldifferenceutah
Vitaldifferenceutah

Children being over prescribed with medication and still in chronic pain from sport injuries. I'm a Correctional Officer at the Utah prison system, whose son became addicted to drugs after an injury. He took everything from Oxycodone to Heroin. After searching the country for months for a program that did not us drug to get them off of drugs, I finally found it in Dallas.

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Terrycart
Terrycart

So, this article show us kids stop doing too much sports exercise. Is that right?

ron
ron

when you you stop this drivil enough is enough damn kids get hurt playing in the dirt soooo football is contact sports or we could say do the fluff dance but you might break a nail. so in my opinion shut the hell up already.

bb
bb

I don't understand why parents encourage their kids to play in contact sports where risk of concussions and other serious injuries is very high. With school budgets cut to the bone it seems, as usual, the college farm teams (high school sports) are rarely impacted. The cost of busing kids to sporting events, equipment, maintenance of sports facilities, coaching staffs etc. is money that could be spent educating students in preparation for going to college on academic merit, or entering the local workforce. A fraction of 1% of high school students playing sports actual go on to earn a living playing their sport(s). However, most if not all injured playing high school sports carry those injuries for the rest of their life.Yea, I know the arguments on childhood obesity and teaching discipline, but at what cost. Get back to basics of teaching PE (Physical Education) and calisthenics.The high-risk sports should be outsourced to leagues and associations outside the school system similar to the way sports are played in elementary school. (Pop Warner, Little League Baseball etc.)Junior high and high schools should get out of the farm team business.

Ronb77
Ronb77

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Joe
Joe

my son plays football and I have him in a 300+ plus helmet. I get alot of crap because of it but guess what, those who put their kid in those sub 100 water coolers should not be allow to complain when then get their bell gets rung..or better yet..those should not be allowed out on the field. If you can pay to protect your kids head...get the f ck off the field...your child is more important.

CR
CR

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year. Out of this figure, about 235,000 are hospitalized and 50,000 die, according to the CDC."

What's sad is that after a certain age the majority of these young kids will grow out of these sports (as with alcohol and other drug abuse) but the damage can last a lifetime.

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

Do the Kids and Parents want to be stars and see stars ? Or not play at all ?

Their choice .

iblobar
iblobar

I think alot of these gung-ho coachs are to blame...mostly the football coachs. Refs have got to do a better job and throw out these agressive dogs that bite....

Roger
Roger

A freak accidental kick to the head derailed my daughters college volleyball career last season. She was not only out of sports, but out of school from last September until July when she went back for Summer 2 classes, she still has some ill affects from the concussion.

Mark Picot
Mark Picot

Concussions not only originate from head contact. Preliminary data supports the use of an orthotic oral appliance designed to prevent the boxers "Glass jaw". In cases of post orthodontics or where temporal mandibular joint dysfunction and concussion history exist, these corrective mouth guards offer more protection than common boil and bite or common custom made tooth protectors. Dr. Bill Burkhart, team dentist for the University of Texas is certified in the protocol to make these adaptive mouth guards.The U.S. Army is moving forward with a research initiative based on the date linked. www.mahercor.com

Study link peer reviewed by a Harvard MGH specialist

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu...

Tyler
Tyler

Play it safe is the App

 
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