Effects of Concussions in Young Athletes

with Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation

Concussions are a common safety concern for school-age athletes, affecting tens of thousands of kids in the U.S. each year.

Chris Nowinski, CEO and Co-Founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, shares the telltale signs and symptoms of a concussion and an initiative that aims to increase awareness and reporting.

Posted on:

Dec 13, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Sports injuries are a common safety concern for school-aged athletes, and concussions, which affect tens of thousands of kids in the U.S. each year, are among the most serious. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. These brain injuries can be especially dangerous, even deadly, if a second concussion occurs before the first has had time to heal. Joining me to discuss the importance of proper diagnosis and treatment is Dr. Chris Nowinski. He is also the CEO and co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. And Dr. Chris, thanks for being here.

Nowinski: Thanks for having me.

Anderson: So in many ways, our lives have stopped, started, halted, and many other things because of the pandemic. But the discussion around concussions continues. I mean, professional athletes are playing, college athletes in many cases, intramural games students are out there playing. Explain to us how common concussions really are.

Nowinski: Well, the interesting thing is we don't actually know because most concussions go undiagnosed. But the last CDC report said about 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions are occurring each year just in sports and recreation. So that's a lot of kids getting hit in the head and suffering concussions.

Anderson: So what are some of the most common sports where you see the most concussions?

Nowinski: So the biggest one is football, partially because there's so many kids playing and partially because there's so many concussions. But most contact sports have high numbers, so soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey, rugby, wrestling. You know, if there's two people that can collide or will collide, you're finding concussions in those sports. And then when it comes to men's and women's sports, you know, women suffer more concussions than men in sports like basketball and soccer where the rules are the same.

Anderson: So one of the things about concussions is the sort of telltale signs can be found in many different illnesses. But even though that may be the case, what are some of the things that people should be looking for? What should families and team members and coaches and even athletes themselves be watching out for?

Nowinski: Yeah, so recognizing a concussion is difficult, and so it's important to talk about it because we used to think about it just 20 years ago as if you weren't knocked unconscious, you didn't have a concussion. We now know that's absurd. In fact, 99% of concussions don't involve loss of consciousness. Well, to recognize concussions, it's important to appreciate there probably has to be a hit to the head that precedes it or a hard fall that causes whiplash-type motion of the head. And then the symptoms you'll often see first have to do with cognition, like confusion or trouble remembering, or physical symptoms and problems with balance. Or the athlete may report a headache, or they might have double vision, or they might have ringing in their ears. And then later on you might find that night they have trouble sleeping, or they're sleeping too much, or they can't stay asleep. And then you also get emotional symptoms that can come with this -- irritability, depression, impulse-control problems. So it's important to appreciate when you give someone a brain injury, you're gonna change, you know, how they behave, how they think, and it can cause a lot of problems.

Anderson: There is one story of a particular high school athlete in Canada that's, I think, a very cautionary tale for family members, team members, loved ones. Her name was Rowan Stringer. She played rugby. What happened to her?

Nowinski: So Rowan Stringer was a great 17-year-old rugby player who was really committed to her team. And so what happened was she got a concussion in a game, and she had another game a couple of days later. And she thought it was a concussion, but she didn't raise it to her parents. She didn't tell the athletic trainer. She did tell a friend, and she and the friend decided together that it was probably best to tell somebody after the next game, but she really wanted to play the next game. So they said, "All right, then say something after that game so you can get some time away." So she went off and played that game, got hit in the head hard again, and ended up dying of what's known as second impact syndrome. Essentially, after concussion, your brain is vulnerable to further damage and even death from further impacts. And so that's partially why it's so important to get -- to recognize concussions when they occur and then to get athletes off the field. And so Rowan's no longer with us because she wasn't educated, her friends weren't educated, and she really wanted to be -- she thought being tough meant playing through concussions rather than coming out and speaking up and coming out of the game.

Anderson: And getting people educated is something that I know you spend a lot of your time doing. The Concussion Legacy Foundation has an initiative called Team Up Speak Up. How are you using that to really create dialog and educate people so that things like Rowan don't happen to other athletes?

Nowinski: So Team Up Speak Up is really targeted to high school and youth athletes. High school and youth athletes aren't good at thinking long-term about their own personal health. They're always willing to sacrifice themselves for the team. And so modern, usual concussion education that you get is often just a short conversation or a one-pager that asks the athlete to put up your hand and tell somebody if you think you have a concussion. And that's really a failing strategy, because not only are these children we're talking about having to self-identify a brain injury, they have a brain injury, and so they're not gonna be good at self-identifying with their brains not working right. And so to supplement that, we created Team Up Speak Up, which actually was inspired by a speech I found in the Harvard football coach's diary from way back in 1905, where even back then he was telling his players, "Hey, if you're in the huddle and somebody got hit in the head and they're not acting right, call timeout and get me and the doctor on the field to check them out." And so that's -- we're now asking coaches to include that speech when they're talking about concussions before the season. Every team should have a discussion about concussions, teaching kids each season what the signs and symptoms are, that it's not -- you need to come out, and then add this element of, "Oh, and by the way, Team Up Speak Up means that person may not recognize their own concussion. So you as a teammate -- it's your job to speak up. Be a good teammate and tell the coach or tell a parent or tell an athletic trainer when you're worried somebody might have a concussion, and that you literally can save their life." And we haven't been asking athletes to do this enough, and we need to be.

Anderson: If people want to find out more about what you're doing, tips, ways they can get engaged, what's your website? Where should they go?

Nowinski: They can go to concussionfoundation.org It's got everything you need. And we also just started a helpline. So often concussions don't recover right away, and they could lead to emotional consequences, depression, anxiety. And we're there to help families recognize those longer-term symptoms and get them to doctors so that they can get the help they need.

Anderson: Dr. Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, thank you so much for joining us.

Nowinski: Thanks for having me, Tetiana.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, be sure to log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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