Concussion Issue Coming to a Head

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Rarely does a day pass that an incident or article pertaining to head injury in sports does not surface. This firestorm of awareness and interest has been brewing for some time, dating back to 2006 when the Brain Trauma Foundation reported that as many as 3.8 million sports and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries occur in the United States each year. But only recently has concern about this problem reached critical mass.

Additional alarming research findings and true heart-tugging stories of afflicted athletes have been widely disseminated through excellent journalistic works like Rick Telander’s nine-part series in the Chicago Sun-Times and a Peter King-led collection of articles in the November 1 issue of Sports Illustrated. As a result, millions of athletes, coaches, sports administrators, and fans have a greater appreciation of the gravity of this problem and the need to take action.

Indeed, the consistent and growing body of evidence showing the damage caused by blunt and repeated blows to the head finally became too convincing for even the National Football League to dismiss. The study reported in September, 2009, revealing that Alzheimer-like symptoms were diagnosed in former NFL players at 19 times the rate for men in the same age bracket might have been the clincher.

Now the NFL and most other sports organizations overseeing contact sports have instituted guidelines specifying the removal of the injured athlete from participation and requirements for re-entry into practice and competitions. And those stipulations will become even more stringent if the American Academy of Neurology has its way. The most authoritative medical group in the world when it comes to concussions now insists that athletes of all ages who are suspected of suffering a concussion should be evaluated and cleared by a specialist before they return to sports activities.

And this “time out” period is beneficial, as research mounts that the brain can repair itself over time if prior trauma has not been too numerous or damaging. Just how long such recovery and healing take is unknown at this point, so athletes must be monitored and cleared by a qualified physician even when external and self-reported symptoms seem to disappear.

While the medical community and sports organizations, administrators, and coaches seem to have reached general consensus on the proper, careful handling of the post-trauma situation, those groups have been less successful in defining specific preventive measures to reduce the incidence of such injuries. When it comes to equipment alterations, rule changes, and the like, tough decisions must be made. These will need to go beyond the minor, well-meaning modifications introduced so far in football and other sports. They should be carefully considered, constructively discussed, and rationally implemented by sports leaders, with input from the medical community, equipment manufacturers, sports officials and coaches and athletes themselves.

On September 23, the House Education and Labor Committee discussed legislation with the intent of reducing the incidence of concussions incurred by student-athletes and ensuring proper post-concussion measures when they do occur. The Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act would establish minimum standards in K-12 schools for concussion safety and management, including educating students, parents, and school personnel about how to recognize and respond to concussions.

If the sports community fails to act swiftly and responsibly to significantly reduce the incidence of head injuries and ensure standards of care for those who experience a traumatic brain injury, you can bet politicians will continue efforts to legislate change. And we all know that when that happens, the result often is a big headache of a different sort.

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