Wichita student Peyton Miller was in sixth grade when he got his first concussion in phys-ed. It was so bad, he was knocked unconscious. A second one in seventh grade came much easier, and by the time he received a third concussion in eighth grade, followed by severe headaches, Peyton walked away from football.
National concern has grown in recent years as more research shows that the immediate and long-term effects of these injuries — classified as a type of traumatic brain injury — are more significant than previously thought.
A concussion occurs when the brain is violently jarred back and forth or rotated inside the skull as a result of a blow to the head or body. This can “stun” brain cells or even kill them, experts say. Doctors say a person does not need to lose consciousness to suffer a concussion, and the effects are cumulative.
Until recently, few rules existed that governed how concussions were treated among athletes. Last July, Kansas changed that. And professional organizations such as the National Football League have come under increased scrutiny to better handle and educate players with injuries.
“Concussions are a silent epidemic,” said Wichita neurologist Bart Grelinger, who is part of a team of local physicians and athletic trainers who formed the Kansas Sports Concussion Partnership last summer, a resource designed to educate coaches, athletes and parents about concussions. The team helped enact the new state law that now regulates how Kansas athletes are handled once a concussion is suspected. It also set up a website, kansasconcussion.org, for parents and coaches.
“We put our children at risk, and we don’t recognize the risk,” he said. “And once they suffer an injury, if we don’t let the brain heal before we put them back in harm’s way, the potential for life-long injury and limitation is measurable.”
Each year, U.S. emergency departments treat an estimated 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, among children and adolescents up to 19 years old, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In addition, from 2001 to 2009, the number of sports- and recreation-related emergency room visits for traumatic brain injuries for that age group increased 62 percent. The overall rate of traumatic brain injury visits increased 57 percent.
“As a mom, I’m really glad Peyton decided not to play football anymore,” said Amy Miller, whose son, now 15, is a freshman at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School and plays baseball. “Even with helmets on, it’s scary. I’m a nervous wreck watching him play. ... I want him to be active and be involved and do things he loves. Just not as much.”
Concussions can occur in any sports or activity, although research shows they happen most often with bicycling, football, playground activities, basketball and soccer. Once someone has a concussion, it’s easier to get another one because the brain is already weakened, experts say.
So far, about 20 lawsuits have been filed against the NFL by former professional players who say that they are suffering long-term effects from repeated head injuries. The lawsuits contend these players suffered repeated concussions from hits and tackles during their years in the NFL that caused brain damage that left them with problems such as dementia, headaches, memory loss, blurred vision and depression.
From ages 30 to 49, the average man gets a diagnosis of dementia at a rate of one in 1,000, according to Neurology Journal. If he’s an NFL football player, however, that rate is one in 53.
"If, for example, an egg is your head, your brain is like the yolk inside," said Mark Stovak, a sports medicine physician who helped pass the state law that requires athletes with suspected concussions to be removed from a game until a physician approves them to play again. "If it gets sloshed around enough times, if you sheer enough axons, your brain just doesn’t work the same. People need to be aware of this and not ignore it."
Travis Francis, manager of sports medicine for Via Christi Health, oversees the outreach athletics training program that provides athletic trainers to sporting events at various organizations such as USD 259, Newman and Wichita State universities, and the Wild Wings.
He was president of the Kansas Athletic Trainers Society last year and was integral in taking the proposed concussion bill to Topeka and helping get it passed. The law requires that any athlete exhibiting any established signs of a head injury is to be removed from a game and not allowed back until a doctor approves it.
“Trainers are about prevention of athletic injury, and this is one of the most potentially serious injuries an athlete can take,” Francis said. “We thought it was something that needs to be legislated. It’s becoming more prevalent, yet there was very little education about it.”
J. Means, the athletic director for Wichita public schools, said the law makes the job of coaches and athletic trainers much easier, as it helps remove any question about what needs to be done in the case of a potential concussion, regardless of what a player, coach or even a parent might say.
“We are very fortunate here in our district to have trainers at the schools – we were doing the correct things already,” he said. “But this takes some of the pressure off. Everyone has the same direction each time something happens.”
Jennifer Hudson, a certified athletic trainer at East High School, says so much focus on concussions is helping make determining injuries and treating them less subjective. She’s working with WSU on testing a software application that will create baseline scores for athletes on things like memory, balance and cognition at the beginning of a season and, later, help determine if an injury is affecting those scores.
“My primary goal and concern is to keep athletes safe,” Hudson said. “And we want to have consistency working with our physicians, athletes, coaches and parents.”