Chicago –Concussions continue to be a hot topic in professional sports with greater emphasis placed on player safety and understanding of brain injuries. Leagues are adopting more rigid guidelines focused on taking injured players out of the game and keeping them sidelined until completely healed. As the message spreads that concussions should not be taken lightly, many experts are aiming to create a similar movement where the pros get their start: youth sports. With close to 7 million high school athletes in the United States and an estimated 140,000 concussions occurring among these students, the message of concussion safety is one that cannot be ignored.
“Children are at much greater risk for long term damage from concussions, particularly when repeat injuries are sustained,” said Hunt Batjer, MD, chair of the department of neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “A major misconception is that a player needs to lose consciousness to be considered concussed. In reality, the majority of concussions do not result in a complete black-out.”
A concussion can occur anytime there’s a hit to the head causing jarring or shaking that disturbs brain function. “The people on the field overseeing student athletes, coaches, trainers and team physicians, need to understand the serious nature of concussions and the importance of keeping kids out of the game when a brain injury is suspected,” said Batjer, who also serves as co-chair for the National Football League’s (NFL) Head, Neck and Spine committee.
To spread that message, Northwestern Medicine™, the shared vision of Northwestern Memorial and the Feinberg School, is hosting “Playing It Safe: Changing the Mindset Around Concussion Safety.” The free educational symposium will take place on Wednesday, July 27, at Northwestern Memorial. Offered in partnership with the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), “Playing It Safe” aims to help athletic directors, coaches, trainers and youth sports volunteers understand the hard-hitting facts about concussions and plan for the new Illinois legislation that will protect athletes when teams begin playing this fall.
Attendees will hear experts in neurosciences, sports medicine and athletics discuss what happens to the brain when a concussion occurs, return to play guidelines, and why there’s a need for a culture change in sports that eliminates pressure to play following a blow to the head. An overview of the new concussion legislation, including the role coaches, trainers and volunteers have in implementing those rules will also be provided. Chicago football Hall of Famer Dan Hampton will provide a keynote address.
“Athletes play with soreness all the time, but it’s crucial to get the message out there that a hit to the head isn’t the same as bumps and bruises to other parts of the body,” said Michael Terry, MD, orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial, associate professor at the Feinberg School and head team physician for the Chicago Blackhawks and Northwestern University athletics. “Concussions are a very real concern for young athletes and repeat blows to the head can leave kids with lingering effects. The best protection is a coach, trainer or team physician who knows their players and is trained to recognize the signs of concussions and knows when to pull an athlete out of the game and keep him or her out until fully recovered.”
The symposium will also teach coaches and trainers how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion, which can include: appearing dazed or stunned; confusion about an assignment or position; forgetting a play; uncertainty of game, score, or opponent; moving clumsily; answering questions slowly; losing consciousness (even briefly); behavior or personality changes; and the inability to recall events before or after a hit or fall. Each attendee will be provided a concussion toolkit that provides reference materials outlining signs and symptoms of a concussion, as well as return to play guidelines.
Athletes must be kept out of the game until fully recovered from a concussion. Returning to play prematurely puts children at risk for a disabling or fatal brain injury. “Second impact syndrome can occur when a second blow to the head happens prior to the child recovering from the initial concussion. This can cause the brain to swell rapidly, a serious medical emergency,” explained Batjer. “The brain is more vulnerable to injury after the first hit, so even minimal force can cause serious, irreversible damage.”
Kids take longer to recover from a concussion than adults; in some cases they may need to refrain from sports or physical activity for up to six weeks. “When recovering, resting the brain is vital,” said Batjer. “That means no watching television, reading or surfing the internet. The injured child needs to sleep and remove stimuli while they are getting over a concussion.”
Another message that the physicians hope to get across is that concussions can occur in any sport, even non-contact sports such as gymnastics or cheerleading. “We hear the most about concussions in games like football and hockey, but in reality these injuries can occur in any sport,” said Terry. “Female athletes are actually more susceptible to concussions than their male counterparts. At the college level, the most concussions occur in women’s soccer and ice hockey. There has to be a focus on safe play and protecting athletes across all sports.”
Batjer and Terry will be among the panelists presenting at “Playing It Safe.” Kurt Becker, former Chicago Bear and high school football coach; Adam Bennett, MD, sports medicine specialist; Tim Bream, MS, ATC, head athletic trainer, Chicago Bears; Daniel Derman, MD, president, Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group; Sarah Edwards, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and team physician for Northwestern University; Kurt Gibson, associate executive director, IHSA; Thad Ide, senior vice president, research and product development, Riddell, Inc.; Carrie Jaworski, MD, head team physician for Northwestern University Athletics; and Amy Mayber, associate general counsel, Northwestern University.
“Participating in sports is a wonderful outlet for child development and certainly encourages healthy habits, but we need to instill the message that one game is not worth sacrificing your future,” said Batjer. “Adults need to facilitate an environment of safe play. When a concussion is suspected, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Take the player out and leave him or her out until a medical professional provides clearance to return.”
“Playing It Safe” is a free event, but registration is required. To register, call 877-926-4664 or visit www.northwesternmedicine.org/playingitsafe.