Ask The Experts
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
With youth football practices and games under way across the country, the issue of concussions, head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is at the forefront of many parents’ minds.
We caught up with Dr. Robert Stern, Director of Clinical Research for the Boston University CTE Center, to get his insights on what parents and coaches should be aware of this season:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are the signs or symptoms that volunteer coaches and parents need to be aware of that indicate a young athlete may have sustained a concussion?
STERN: A player will start to feel the effects or symptoms from a concussion after they have been hit. Problems with memory, retention, balance, sleep, headaches, vision and mood are all symptoms of a concussion.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Can a young athlete sustain injury to his brain without feeling any symptoms?
STERN: A player may not feel anything because the helmet protects their head from feeling any pain, but their brain is still rattling around inside their skull. When that happens, there are changes going on to the brain cells. And what research is now showing is that it’s those sub-concussive hits that happen over and over that can cause damage to the brain.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: If a young athlete sustains a concussion are they in danger of developing CTE?
STERN: Parents and coaches of young athletes need to understand that if a child sustains a concussion, he or she is not at all at an increased risk for developing CTE or other brain problems later in life. A single concussion, if managed well with adequate rest and appropriate active recovery, should not have any long-term complications. Even having two concussions should not make anyone scared, as long as the athlete tells people about his or her symptoms and they are allowed to fully recover before getting back into the game.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is there a certain number of concussions that make a young athlete more likely to develop CTE later in life?
STERN: There is no magic number of concussions that should make any athlete afraid of later life problems. Young athletes need to understand that it’s not the big hits that seem to lead to CTE or other long-term problems. Rather, it is the repetitive hits to the head that don’t have symptoms following those hits that are more worrisome. What we’ve found in research so far is that those sub-concussive hits seem to be as important, or more important, than those bigger hits that result in symptoms when it comes to problems later in life.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: As parents and coaches of young athletes how do we help protect kids from those repetitive hits, or recognize when they are sustaining too many?
STERN: There really is no way to protect kids from the repetitive hits in tackle football. Those hits are part of the game. What I strongly recommend is to delay the beginning of tackle football until high school. Flag football is a superb alternative to tackle. More and more of the greatest NFL players of all time, like Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner have stated that kids shouldn’t be playing tackle until high school and that flag football is a great alternative that teaches the important skills of the game. Many of the best Hall of Famers didn’t start playing until high school, such as Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Harry Carson, Mike Haynes, and Warren Sapp. When it comes to other sports, such as soccer and ice hockey, I recommend that parents and coaches make sure the current policies are strictly followed, such as no heading in soccer or checking in ice hockey until later ages. The key is this: kids need and benefit from sports and athletics at all ages, but it is critical to avoid activities that involve repetitive hits to the head that jostle the brain inside the skull during important periods of brain development.
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