Kids and concussions

July 25th, 2017

Protecting student athletes against brain damage from concussions is often complicated by a tendency many of them share. They lie — not because they’re deceitful but because they know a concussion will get them pulled out of play.

Concussion panelists

Concussion panelists Dr. Jonathan Oliver (TCU), David Gable (TCU), Dr. Michele Kirk (JPS), Dr. Damond Blueitt (THR), Bobby Jean Lee (THR), Barry Foval (Concussion Legacy Foundation)

“We have found that they’re not always honest with us,” said Dr. Michele Kirk, director of Sports Medicine at JPS and team physician for Texas Christian University and Fort Worth and Arlington public schools. People with concussions also may be unable to recognize changes in their own behavior.

Kirk and her sports medicine colleagues are working to change that, encouraging a sports culture in which young athletes speak up when they suspect someone has been hurt. She was at TCU this week for a panel discussion with leading researchers.

“When I had concussions no one could really tell,” said Barry Foval of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a Boston-based organization dedicated to chronic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease affecting a growing list of NFL players. Among the foundation’s initiatives is a campaign called Team Up Speak Up, intended to fuel that culture change.

“Team Up is about education at the player level,” said Dr. Jonathan Oliver, assistant professor in TCU’s Department of Kinesiology. “Education is very important. What causes a concussion in one person is not going to cause a concussion in another,” so young athletes need to know what to watch for.

Concussions don’t show up on x-rays or scans. Nothing is broken, but the brain has been shaken inside an unforgiving skull. Neurocognitive and vestibular ocular testing reveal symptoms, which can include changes in memory, concentration, balance and mood, headaches and sensitivity to light and noise.

The brain can heal, but that takes longer for children than adults — and longer still in children with learning differences such as ADHD. Kirk said she often works with schools to initiate accommodations for athletes with concussions, such as allowing them extra time on tests.

No piece of equipment has been shown to prevent concussions. Helmets and other gear that protect the skull “are going to stop the egg from breaking,” Oliver said, “but it doesn’t change the shaking inside the egg, which is concussion.”

Said Kirk, “The only potential we’ve seen is DHA,” a fatty acid found in fish oil. Kirk and Oliver have conducted the largest-ever study of DHA’s potential to protect against brain damage. Analysis of data amassed during the study is still under way. “It looks very promising that it could be neuroprotective,” she said. “I believe it helps with recovery.”

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