Experts: Head Injuries Happening to Younger Athletes

Dana Hills and Redlands players battle for the ball in Wednesday's playoff game at Redlands High School. Redlands-Loma Linda Patch photo by Bill Norris.

As alarming as the news was that football great Junior Seau suffered from a brain disorder likely brought about by years of blows to the head, it might be equally disturbing to parents that this scenario is playing out everyday in our school yards and playgrounds.

For several years now, children and young adults, some as young as 9, have been streaming in for treatment of sports-related brain injuries, according to Dr. Valarie Wong, MD, a pediatric and sports medicine specialist at Loma Linda University Medical Center, and assistant professor, Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

Sports physicians have seen increasing numbers of head injury cases across the country. And that may be due to the awareness raised by professional athletes over the last few years.

(To learn more about the symptoms of concussion, visit the Center’s for Disease Control’s website.)

The news of Seau’s suicide on May 2, 2012, and the more recent discovery that he had suffered from CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is again shining a spotlight on the subject.

“We don’t know of absolute proof that this is what is happening to our youngsters who are getting concussions or brain injuries,” Wong said. Currently the only way to detect CTE is through dissection.

“But the symptoms are there,” she said. “They are the similar to the ones seen in National Football League players.”

They are coming in starting about age 9, when the more competitive nature kicks in combined with increasing size and strength, Wong said.

Young concussion patients are being seen for headaches and dizziness. They can be affected by light and loud noise. Some are unable to focus as well as they used to, she added. They suffer from general “spaciness.”

But the behavioral changes may be more alarming. In some cases, personalities have changed, she said.

“I have a couple patients of my own who are totally different people,” she said. “They are still the same person, but you can tell they are not as engaged. Sometimes they are not as social. They prefer to be by themselves, whereas before they were very bubbly.”

“I’ve seen A students become C students,” she continued. One bright student bound for private college suffered multiple head injuries from snowboarding and saw her grades drop off, she said.

General coping skills for these youngsters can disappear, Wong said.

Many lose the ability to effectively multi-task because the executive function in the frontal part of the brain – which does things such as regulating our social life and keeping temper under control — can get wiped out in a brain injury, she said.

As lives change, depression can set in. For dozens of professional athletes, it appears to have translated to acts of violence. In Seau’s case, it was against himself.

Personality changes have not been a permanent condition in her young patients, she said. But it has in others.

“We think it’s (dependent) on the number of injuries they suffer and the severity of the injury,” she said.

The study of concussions and their long-term effects is still in the early stages. The increase of suicides of professional athletes from collision sports — including football, hockey, mixed martial arts and even professional wrestling — has spurred research, such as what was conducted on Seau’s brain.

“We believe that it’s probably going to be cumulative when the research is finished,” Wong said. “But right now we’re still very much in the infancy stage in terms of research in the young groups especially in teenagers and even college age group. How many hits, or how hard a hit does it take (to cause serious or permanent injury) we just don’t know.”

What progress they have made has been through the urging of the former NFL players, who are pushing the league publicly and through legal action, to address the issue.

The sports medicine community had been raising red flags on concussions and head injuries long before it came to the media, but the more recent publicity has created funding sources, she said.

Last year, more than 3,000 former professional NFL players joined in a lawsuit against in the league.

“It allowed us to get research money to move ahead with this,” Wong said. “We didn’t have money before. Nobody was interested in concussions. They’d say, ‘Oh everybody gets their bell rung. It’s just part of growing up. It’s a part of sports.’ We’d say, ‘No you don’t understand. We’re seeing kids and young adults who aren’t getting better.’ ”

Troops returning from war zones also have spurred funding because many who have been in an IED (or improvised explosive device) attack suffer similar brain injuries.

Wong, along with members of the Loma Linda University Medical Center, and researchers across the country are trying to find imaging methods that give a better indication in the brain of what is actually going on, she said.

“Conventional CT Scans and MRI’s usually do not show injury at the level that is occurring with the people that get concussions,” Wong said.

Right now she cited the best defense against developing lifelong brain disability is proper coaching techniques, good use of safety equipment and diligent parenting, she said.

In fact, Wong said she and her colleagues believe the influx of cases is likely due to parents recognizing the symptoms of a concussion.

“I don’t think it’s increased because of the nature of the sport or the kids have changed or something like that,” she said. “I just think the public is more aware that the child needs to be checked out possibly; that something may have happened.”

And efforts such as a concussion safety law that went into effect last year, requires that parents become informed about concussions and head injuries before their child can play. The NFL supported the passage of California Assembly Bill 25.

In the meantime, Wong encourages parents to become familiar with the effects of concussions and to watch for that.

“Allow the kids to say, ‘Hey I don’t feel good,’ ” she said. “Often times there’s a lot of pressure on the athletes to just suck it up.”

It has to be the parents and coaches to step in.


2 Comments

  • NaTiVe BlAcK

    Trouble with my speech and reading lately help please?
    Okay so lately I have been slurring my words at the end and I am starting to stutter a little, a while ago I had a BMX bike land on my head in a bike accident and my jaw won’t open all of the way bout the width of my index finger like I can open it a bit wider but when I do it cracks and it hurts like crazy, I also got in a car accident and I hit my head off the passengers side window, oh and also most of the time when I read I have trouble understanding the words, and I have to read outloud I am only 14 any ideas of why this is happening to me lately?

  • Aragorn

    It sounds like you probably had an undiagnosed concussion. Slurred speech is one of the listed symptoms. You need to report these symptoms to a doctor. Concussions can have effects that go on for a while. Repeated head injuries can cause additional damage. You need to stop doing things where you might get injured again. Check out the attached links. Here’s and excerpt from the second one you should definitely read.

    "The signs and symptoms of a concussion can be subtle and may not be immediately apparent. Symptoms can last for days, weeks or even longer.

    The most common symptoms after a concussive traumatic brain injury are headache, amnesia and confusion. The amnesia, which may or may not be preceded by a loss of consciousness, almost always involves the loss of memory of the impact that caused the concussion.

    Signs and symptoms of a concussion may include:

    Headache or a feeling of pressure in the head
    Temporary loss of consciousness
    Confusion or feeling as if in a fog
    Amnesia surrounding the traumatic event
    Dizziness or "seeing stars"
    Ringing in the ears
    Nausea or vomiting
    Slurred speech
    Fatigue

    Some symptoms of concussions may be immediate or delayed in onset by hours or days after injury:

    Concentration and memory complaints
    Irritability and other personality changes
    Sensitivity to light and noise
    Sleep disturbances
    Psychological adjustment problems and depression
    Disorders of taste and smell

    Symptoms in children
    Head trauma is very common in young children. But concussions can be difficult to recognize in infants and toddlers because they can’t readily communicate how they feel. Nonverbal clues of a concussion may include:

    Listlessness, tiring easily
    Irritability, crankiness
    Change in eating or sleeping patterns
    Lack of interest in favorite toys
    Loss of balance, unsteady walking

    When to see a doctor
    See a doctor within one to two days if:

    You or your child experiences a head injury, even if emergency care isn’t required

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you call your child’s doctor for advice if your child receives anything more than a light bump on the head. If your child remains alert, moves normally and responds to you, the injury is probably mild and usually doesn’t need further testing. In this case, if your child wants to nap, it’s OK to let them sleep. If worrisome signs develop later, seek emergency care.

    Seek emergency care for a child who experiences a head injury and:

    Vomiting
    A headache that gets worse over time
    Changes in his or her behavior, including irritability or fussiness
    Changes in physical coordination, including stumbling or clumsiness
    Confusion or disorientation
    Slurred speech or other changes in speech
    Vision or eye disturbances, including pupils that are bigger than normal (dilated pupils) or pupils of unequal sizes
    Changes in breathing pattern
    Lasting or recurrent dizziness
    Blood or fluid discharge from the nose or ears
    Large head bumps or bruises on areas other than the forehead, especially in infants under 12 months of age

    Seek emergency care for anyone who experiences a head injury and:

    A loss of consciousness lasting more than a minute
    Repeated vomiting
    Seizures
    Obvious difficulty with mental function or physical coordination
    Symptoms that worsen over time

    Athletes
    No one should return to play or vigorous activity while signs or symptoms of a concussion are present. Experts recommend that an athlete with a suspected concussion not return to play until he or she has been medically evaluated. Experts also recommend that child and adolescent athletes with a concussion not return to play on the same day as the injury. "
    References :
    http://kidshealth.org/teen/safety/first_aid/concussions.html
    http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/concussion/DS00320/DSECTION=symptoms

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