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Concussion crisis: Are young athletes at risk?

(Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

(Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

The concussion. It’s the most discussed and debated injury from the games we play.

Its numbers are mind-boggling, with from 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports and recreation head injuries occurring a year in the U.S., according to the National Academies of Science.

In years past, when players “had their bell rung,” it was dismissed as part of the game.

But that has changed as research has demonstrated the link between repeated concussions and short-term and long-term debilitating brain damage, which can lead to dementia, depression and even suicide.

U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody recently denied a settlement between the National Football League and more than 4,500 retired players, because she fears that $765 million spread among them won’t be enough.

Proper technique while heading a soccer ball is imperative. Here, Rio Rancho's Klarissa Ames, front, collides with Eldorado's Katie Corbett. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Proper technique while heading a soccer ball is imperative. Here, Rio Rancho’s Klarissa Ames, front, collides with Eldorado’s Katie Corbett. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Just last week, President Barack Obama voiced concern about the NFL’s concussion rate and told the New Yorker magazine that if he had a son, “I would not let (him) play pro football.”

Even locally, concussions have been the focus of sports headlines.

  • They forced both Lobo football quarterback Cole Gautsche and all-Mountain West running back Kasey Carrier to miss the final games of the 2013 season.
  • UNM women’s basketball player Khadijah Shumpert sat out three recent games with concussion symptoms from, of all things, getting hit in the head with a ball.
  • Controversy swirled over a hit by a Mayfield High School player to Cleveland standout Sterling Napier during last fall’s Class 5A state high school football semifinals; Napier was knocked out of the game with concussion symptoms, and Cleveland lost the game.

Missy Archibeck, head athletic trainer at Eldorado High School, has been active in increasing awareness and training regarding concussions in young athletes.

But she concedes that she doesn’t see how “you can fully prevent concussions 100 percent – the brain is floating in fluid in the skull, and sometimes there isn’t anything to stop it from banging into the skull.”

So what is being done and are the games our kids play safe?

More awareness

Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director for the Center for Brain Health, concurs with many experts when she says the benefits of youth football far exceed the risk of permanent brain damage.

Addressing the American Football Coaches Association this month, she called it a “myth” that the majority of concussions cause permanent impairment, adding that, if properly managed, most concussions can be treated and cognitive function can be regained.

Cleveland High’s Sterling Napier, left, was knocked out of the team’s semifinal playoff game after a blow by Dominic Carrasco. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Cleveland High’s Sterling Napier, left, was knocked out of the team’s semifinal playoff game after a blow by Dominic Carrasco. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Changes are occurring at all levels of sports to make sure that happens.

Both the NFL and the NCAA have made new rules; New Mexico passed laws on how high schools should deal with concussions; and the Young American Football League and U.S. Youth Soccer are working to create more awareness with coaches and parents, as well as better training techniques across the country. New Mexico is taking the lead in one program.

Archibeck said the way concussions are handled in Albuquerque Public Schools athletics has “changed big time. It used to be if a kid had symptoms, they’d be taken out of the game, evaluated and, if symptoms were gone in under 5 to 10 minutes, they could be put back in. Now they are pulled out of the game and can’t practice or play for a minimum (of) seven days.”

Many argue that the size and talent of today’s athletes – much bigger, faster and stronger than decades ago – contribute to a higher rate of concussions. But have concussions increased, or just awareness of them?

Eldorado football coach Charlie Dotson says there is no doubt high school players hit harder than in years past, but he thinks “there are more concussions now, because more are labeled concussions. There is much more awareness. The kids are much more aware.”

The prevalence of concussions in football has led to a higher profile, but “you also see a lot of concussions in soccer and a lot in cheerleading,” says Archibeck. “Gals at the bases (of formations) get hit by fliers (the athlete being tossed in the air) and there are all sorts of traumatic forces. Cheerleading people don’t talk about it much, but we do get a lot of gals getting concussions.”

UNM takes steps

The NFL has been at the center of increased awareness, but it is far from alone in the concussion controversy.

Earlier this season, college football players around the country started the “All Players United” campaign by playing with APU in black marker on their gear. The campaign was organized by the National College Players Association, and No. 1 on its list of Missions and Goals: “Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.” The NCPA also wants the NCAA to set aside a portion of new football playoff revenues for research and support for current and former players.

The University of New Mexico is taking steps in the battle. The school and the nonprofit organization Mind Research Network have a project called “Brain Safe” and will regularly look inside the brains of more than 200 Lobo athletes with an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). (See the related story in Sports.)

High school sports are also changing. Archibeck said a state law passed in 2010 has helped athletic trainers deal with head injuries that may be concussions.

“Once a kid is exhibiting signs, we have to remove them,” says Archibeck, who had a hand in creating an APS concussion policy even prior to the law being passed.

“It’s obviously woken people up and made them more aware of how serious it is. I don’t know if all coaches are buying into it yet, but many more parents and coaches are listening.”

Sally Marquez, executive director of the New Mexico Activities Association, said that, after the athlete has sat out the required amount of time, he or she must then be cleared to participate by the athletic trainer or a medical professional.

Dusty Young, associate director of the NMAA, said some school districts require a minimum of 14 days before an athlete can return to a sport.

Participation down

The Young American Football League for kids in elementary and middle schools has also made concussion prevention a priority. Last fall, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council called for a national system to track sports-related concussions in kids.

Groves: "Concussions are more ... mainstream"

Groves: “Concussions are more … mainstream”

In November, according to data provided to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” the nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner, had a 9.5 percent decrease in participation between 2010-12.

Pop Warner officials told ESPN they believed several factors played a role in the decline, but the organization’s chief medical officer cited concerns about head injuries as “the No. 1 cause.”

The NFL and USA Football have responded by promoting a “Heads Up” Football program, and YAFL in New Mexico reported it is already one of two pilots.

The program trains coaches about safer tackling techniques and educates parents and coaches about the signs of concussions and what to do when one occurs.

“We immediately jumped on board,” NMYAFL executive director Bill Blair Jr. said. He said there have been “much fewer concussions” and the game is being played at a “much safer level.”

Trevor Levandoski, who played football at the University of Arizona nearly 20 years ago, has coached the same group of YAFL kids the past five years, starting when they were 7.

“How you coach kids has changed a lot,” he says of the past two decades. “It used to be, as a football player, you pretty much get yelled at constantly. Now, it seems like more of a nurturing aspect … . I will say that … what parents expect from their kids has gone up a lot. And I think that’s added to the problems. Parents not only want their kids to be stars, but they might be teaching them the wrong things as well (as far as tackling techniques).”

Proper technique

Just about every sport is being evaluated to see what can be done to prevent head injuries and how to give better care to those who suffer them – especially at the youth level.

Soccer officials around New Mexico say they are very aware of concussions in their sport and that much has been done.

“Because of research, concussions are more and more mainstream,” says Josh Groves, technical director for the New Mexico Youth Soccer Association, who is in charge of the coaching education program. “They are being looked at a lot more closely and a lot is really coming from national governing bodies.”

Josh Groves, center, runs a course to help teach youth soccer coaches proper techniques in helping to prevent concussions and other injuries. (Courtesy Of Josh Groves)

Josh Groves, center, runs a course to help teach youth soccer coaches proper techniques in helping to prevent concussions and other injuries. (Courtesy of Josh Groves)

“A lot of what we do locally is coach education-based.”

Larry Espinoza, a former semi-professional soccer player and current general manager of the Albuquerque Sol – which plays its debut season in the USL Premier Development League this spring – said concussions in the sport are caused by a variety of factors, but mostly from head-to-head collisions and heads hitting the ground.

In years past, there was little concern or awareness.

“The only time it became a topic was when someone had one. They would have to be very careful around food so they didn’t get sick. If we were on the road, someone had to wake whoever had one every 2 or 2½ hours to check them. But concussions were few and far between.”

Espinoza said he thinks harder play has led to an increase of concussions, but also “it’s a much bigger topic now because of awareness.”

Both Espinoza and Groves said heading the ball in soccer, if done correctly, shouldn’t cause concussions. The key word is “correctly.”

“With heading, they (coaches) need to teach the proper technique and use part of the forehead, rather the top of the head.”

Groves said there are nationwide discussions about making rule changes for young soccer players, which would disallow them to use their head to strike the ball.