Boom! It’s the fourth quarter, and the last thing you remember is running to the end zone. Your teammates are helping you to the sidelines, and your head feels strange. The team doctor evaluates you and says you have a concussion.
Eric McMechan, 18, knows firsthand this sense of confusion. In his four-year football career at Park Tudor, he had two concussions, but he didn’t recognize the symptoms of his first one. “I just knew that when I turned and stuff, I was having trouble walking. My head felt kind of fuzzy.”
Dr. Daniel E. Kraft is director of Riley Sports Medicine and specializes in treating children and adolescents. He sees many concussions, which he defines as “a bruise on the brain.”
Though most bruises are considered fairly inconsequential, concussions can be serious. In a concussion, the brain slams into the insides of the skull, damaging and destroying some brains cells and setting off biochemical events that might result in long-term deficits.
“I tell my patients that we know you’ve had a concussion when two things occur: Number one, you’ve had an injury to your head or some type of trauma to your head, and number two, you have a symptom of that injury – headache, dizziness, feeling dazed or disoriented, loss of memory right before the accident or right after the accident, feeling confused, not being able to concentrate,” he said.
Other symptoms might include sensitivity to light or loud noises, sleeping more or less than normal, and being more irritable or emotional.
Concussions have come into the spotlight lately as many players in the NFL are being diagnosed with them. According to a 2000 study of 1,000 former football players, more than 60 percent had sustained a concussion at sometime in their careers.
But concussions aren’t limited to football players. They happen in all sorts of sports including soccer, cheerleading, and even figure skating.
Mary Claire Hoven, 17, is a recent Carmel High School graduate who received multiple concussions while cheerleading. She described one episode: “We were at the University of Kentucky with my cheer team, and a girl came down on me on a back spot, and my flyer came down on my head and so hit me on my head, and then I hit the floor pretty hard.”
Mary Claire blacked out and then threw up. Next day she went to the doctor and was told she had a concussion. She wasn’t surprised. “I kind of already knew that I had it. I just didn’t feel good at all, and it kind of went through my head, like, ‘Oh no, I can’t finish out this season!’”
Jillian Phillips, 15, says concussions are common in figure skating, especially in pairs. She’s had multiple concussions since she started the sport at age 3, with her most serious involving a fall she had after her skates had been sharpened incorrectly. “When I went to stop, the skate cut into the ice right away and I wasn’t prepared for that and I rocked over and landed on the side of my head,” she said. “I blacked out.”
Kraft stresses the importance of removing the injured athlete from competition immediately to avoid further damage to the brain and nerves associated with it. Most are required to rest, often in a dark room, and to avoid taxing themselves mentally and physically.
Before they return to action, most injured athletes are required to pass the ImPACT test (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing), a 20-minute computer comprehension test, which can be administered by a school nurse or athletic trainer. It measures reaction time, attention span and problem-solving skills, and is usually administered soon after injury and after the athlete has had time to recover.
“It gives us an idea, kind of a roadmap, of what the patient’s functioning is normally, and then after they get injured, that roadmap needs to be the same as it was before,” said Kraft.
Chris Schoenfeld, 17, will be a senior at Cathedral High School and has played soccer since he was 7. He received his first concussion a year ago. “There was a ball kicked high in the air, and I went to go head it and someone’s leg met my head in the air and basically knocked my head, which went back into the ground and basically gave me a concussion,” he said.
When Chris thought he was ready to play again, he had to pass an ImPACT test. “I had to pass all the tests and do all these different running exercises to make sure I was able to play. So I basically took every precaution before I went back and played.”
ImPACT tests are becoming standard for every athlete who has sustained a concussion. Ideally, Kraft says, athletes should take the test before their seasons start so coaches and doctors have a benchmark to follow in case they receive a concussion.
When it comes to the long-term effects of concussions, Kraft says they vary based on the severity.
Mimi Strobel played soccer at Lawrence Central High School and is now a sophomore at Indiana University. In high school, she sustained five concussions and can no longer play contact sports. Even though her last concussion was more than a year ago, she still has symptoms, such as light sensitivity and skewed depth perception.
“I get migraines and headaches a lot. Like if someone just jokingly hits me on the head or if I somehow bump my head, I get a really bad headache,” she explained.
Kraft stressed the importance of taking care of each concussion. “Bad things can happen if you have another concussion injury on top of the concussion that’s not healed completely,” he said.
When concussions are untreated, side effects can be extremely dangerous. “Long term, you could have a change in personality. You could have a change in how smart you are, all the way up to possibly death,” Kraft added.
Right now, doctors are focused on treating concussions, not preventing them. “The biggest thing is recognizing concussions and treating concussions and holding patients out of play until their concussion is resolved,” he said.
But some athletes are working on prevention. To continue playing, Eric bought a Xenith helmet to lessen the severity of impact. “It’s just a special helmet with a new design that has air pockets or whatever inside the helmet that go around your head. When you hit something, it lets out the air. It slows down the impact so it’s not such a sudden stop, which is what causes the brain to hit the inside of the skull and causes the swelling and injury and such,” he explained.
Due to the cost of the helmet (about $400), many schools cannot make them standard equipment. Eric, though, needed the protection -- he had sustained another concussion and it was much worse than his first.
“My junior year, I received a second concussion. I actually lost consciousness for several minutes, and I had amnesia for about two or three hours.”
Reporters Sophia Mathioudakis, 12, and Jessica Wang, 13, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press