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.