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Cortical Matters: Youth Sports Concussions

“We must educate young athletes, coaches and parents to recognize the warning signs of brain injures and ultimately to find ways to prevent them. I want to educate young athletes to learn to play hard- but play smart.  We all must realize that there is nothing more important than the safety of your brain as brain injury can change your life forever” – Randall Mc Daniel (Former Minnesota Viking/2009 Pro Football Hall of Famer/2010 Honorary Ambassador of the Minnesota Brain Injury Association Walk for Thought 2010).

Sports related concussions occur in over 50,000 high school athletes each year, accounting for 20% of all brain injuries. This figure does not take into account the injures that occur on collegiate fields, courts, and slopes each year nor those that occur in grade school sporting activities .  Even “mild” injuries can affect  an individual’s ability to problem solve, concentrate, and regulate mood and behavior.  The brain is made of soft tissue and is cushioned by spinal fluid. It is encased in the hard, protective skull. When a person gets a head injury, the brain can slosh around inside the skull and even bang against it. This can lead to bruising of the brain, tearing of blood vessels, and injury to the nerves. When this happens, a person can get a concussion — a temporary loss of normal brain function.  Even “mild” injuries can have devastating repercussions on cognitive function.  Physical symptoms like dizziness and headache often improve before the cognitive symptoms. The effects of multiple concussions are cumulative making it particularly dangerous to return to the sport before full healing has taken place.

I love sports.  I grew up going to football games at University of Michigan. I got excited when Michigan beat Notre Dame last weekend.  However I worried about the ND quarterback who was “having troubles seeing.”  Team officials denied that he had a concussion but I  wondered  why they put him back out there with those symptoms.   It is very exciting to watch a game unfold on a beautiful fall day.  This year, my son who is a senior in high school, decided to play football. There are many benefits from playing on sports teams too numerous to list here.  However,I cringe and I worry about his safety and that of his teammates.  I wonder if this is against my values and my life’s work:  maximizing human potential by challenging and caring for the brain.  I think many of us feel the same way.  We love sports.  We want our teams to win and our young people to excel in these competitions.  Yet, in the back of our minds, we are concerned about the risks.

When my daughter sustained a mild concussion while taking a charge in an AAU National Basketball Tournament in 2004, I really wanted her to get back out there.  There were college scouts present and she had been playing so well. It wasn’t easy to reconcile with the fact that we had traveled all the way to North Carolina and she was going to spend the tournament on the bench.  There was much more at stake though than a basketball tournament.  Another concussion could have had far-reaching implications. The yearning to compete tempered by the real consequences when an individual sustains a brain injury during competition makes this  year’s Walk for Thought  particularly pertinent for parents and youth alike.   The magnetic pull to compete, win, or participate in a sports contest can override our better judgment in the face of a brain injury unless we build an awareness of what’s at stake.  Let them play but let them play smart.

Raising awareness about youth sports concussions is the theme of this year’s Walk for Thought. In the words of Randall Mc Daniel, “We need to change the old-school attitudes about brain injuries in sports.”  Please consider donating to our team “Big on Brains” as we “do the brain walk” on Saturday, September 25th.  Thank you!

**PHOTO:  2009 Big on Brains team (Theme: Brain injuries in U.S. Veterans)  Here we are modeling our “brain tattoos.”


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