“I’d rather have my brain”

Concussions draw increasing attention in youth sports; girls may face higher risks

“I was standing on the field and this girl, probably five feet away from me, full on kicked the ball and hit me right in the face. I remember falling, sort of, and I think someone pulled me off the field- and apparently I was just sitting there in a daze.”

This is what sophomore Rachel McNamara remembers of the time during a soccer game last fall when she sustained a concussion, a type of injury that affects 1.6 million Americans per year, according to federal statistics, and is causing both concern and a need for purposeful precautions.

Because she had previously experienced two concussions playing hockey, McNamara knew very well that healing was going to be a difficult process.

Many Minnehaha athletes have learned about concussions from pre-season meetings with Becca VanderWerf, the high school athletic trainer. The Mayo Clinic defines a concussion as “a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions.”

Concussions can be caused by anything that suddenly jars the body, whether that is a blow to the head or being hit somewhere on the body.

“Contact can be from another player, hitting a hard playing surface, ice or ground, or being hit by a piece of equipment,” VanderWerf said. Post-concussion symptoms include temporary difficulties in memory, concentration and coordination.

“I had really bad sensitivity to light, and really bad headaches,” McNamara said, “I was just really dizzy and really tired all of the time.”

Players in the past, particularly in football, would often be sent back onto the field after a concussion without concern or medical attention, risking deadly swelling of the brain, or possibly depression or dementia later in life.

However, more recent cases and studies show that concussions have to be dealt with carefully while the brain is still vulnerable from the injury.

“During the recovery process it is very important for athletes to get both physical and mental rest,” VanderWerf said. “Mental rest is more challenging because students need to avoid surfing the internet, texting, video games, reading, which are all high-function brain activities.”

Adjusting her habits to comply with her doctor’s suggestions for recovery eliminated lots of activities that had previously kept McNamara busy. This was the greatest challenge for her.

“You basically have to sit in a dark room until the doctor says that you’re better, and no TV, no computer, no reading, no exercising, and you just sit,” she said. “I was a mushroom for a month.”

As unappealing as it sounds to have to stop participating in sports and sit around until the symptoms die down, it is actually necessary in order for the athlete to get back in the game as soon as possible and at full strength.

Students recovering from concussions must be monitored by a doctor and trainer to ensure that they are healthy before participating again.

“Every day the athlete will record their symptoms, and once the athlete has no symptoms for 24 hours, they will take the baseline test,” said VanderWerf, referring to the 20 minute exam, which measures cognitive functioning that Minnehaha students are required to take at the beginning of a contact sport season. Post-concussion retesting allows for comparison of results to identify differences in brain functioning. Once they clear the baseline test the athlete can gradually participate in exercise, beginning with light activity and eventually full contact again.

For male athletes, concussions most commonly occur in football, hockey and lacrosse. It’s no surprise that McNamara, a soccer, hockey and lacrosse player, has sustained three concussions, because hockey, soccer and basketball have the highest concussion rates for girls.

Recently, studies have been done to find an explanation behind the higher concussion risks in girls than boys.

Research published in the newest issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine confirms that young female athletes show more symptoms and need longer recovery processes than older or male athletes.

“Some have theorized that female athletes have weaker neck muscles and a smaller head mass than male athletes, or that it could be from hormonal differences,” explained VanderWerf.

Mark Hyman, who wrote Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, said that it is possible that the reason concussions seem to occur more in girls is that they are simply more willing to admit suffering an injury than boys are.

Boys, Hyman said, “may be more likely to play through pain to avoid being sidelined in their sport.”

Although athletes can’t avoid all risk of concussions while playing contact sports, there are certain steps that can be taken by players and our school to help keep students safer. VanderWerf suggests that players avoid initiating head contact during play and strengthen core and neck muscles that support the body during contact.

A new Minnesota Concussion Statute, which includes concussion management laws to make high school sports safer, was put into effect this school year. It requires coaches to take online concussion training every three years and for athletes returning to play to have written consent from a doctor or trainer clearing them for activity. Additionally, athletes who are suspected of having sustained a concussion aren’t allowed to compete on the same day of the injury.

Concussions certainly take their toll on report cards, too. McNamara says that her grades suffered since she wasn’t allowed to take tests or do homework for a month, which concerned her parents.

Even worse is the impact that continuing to play with an already injured brain can potentially have. If a player returns too soon after a concussion, they risk experiencing Second Impact Syndrome, rapid and fatal swelling of the brain which has killed a number of high school students. The chance of having another concussion also increases once you have sustained a first one.

“Because the brain is more vulnerable and susceptible to injury after an initial concussion injury, it only takes a minimal force to cause irreversible damage,” VanderWerf warned. “That is why it is so important to report any symptoms.”

As competition gets tough in athletics, love for the sport should come with awareness of the importance of safety.

“If I get another bad concussion they would probably tell me not to do sports anymore, and that is really scary for me,” McNamara said, “I’m really scared that I’d have to stop playing sports, but at the same time I’d rather have my brain.”

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