Seminar examines concussions in sports

tackleEven at the highest levels of professional sport, concussion knowledge was limited even as recently as a decade ago, said a retired NFL quarterback at a special Greenwich presentation on the issue, which has received intense scrutiny in recent months.

At a forum on concussions in youth sport in town last week, Tim Hasselbeck, a quarterback with several teams including the New York Giants and now an analyst with ESPN, said it was only later in his career, following a 2004 pre-season game, that he knew what a concussion was.

“I was 28 years old the very first time I was diagnosed with a concussion. I was diagnosed with a concussion after a preseason game,” he said. “The first thing I thought was: That’s a concussion? If that is a concussion then I have had a bunch of them. I just thought I was tired after a game or dehydrated and that’s why I was nauseous.”

Mr. Hasselbeck spoke at the Youth Sports Concussion Awareness and Prevention seminar on Tuesday, Nov. 19. About 120 people attended the event at the Greenwich Library’s Cole Auditorium. The ONS Foundation and NFL Alumni Connecticut Chapter presented the event and it was sponsored by the Greenwich branch of Wells Fargo Advisors.

Mr. Hasselbeck was joined on the panel by Paul Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon with Orthopedic and Neurosurgery Specialists in Greenwich, Patricia McDonough Ryan, a practicing pediatric neuropsychologist, Mark Camel, a neurosurgeon who specializes in spine surgery and section head of neurosurgery at Greenwich Hospital, and Scott Thurlow, president of the NFL Alumni Association Connecticut Chapter.

Also in the audience was Russell Warren, team doctor for the New York Giants. He said reporting of concussions has increased as more players, parents and team officials took the issue seriously.

“I think one of the good things the NFL has done is zero tolerance,” Dr. Warren said.

That policy was driven by concussions leaping to the forefront of sports consciousness as many former athletes, particularly retired NFL players, talk about the health issues they deal with because of the repeated concussions they suffered during their careers.

Mr. Hasselbeck agreed with Dr. Warren on improvements made in concussion awareness in the pro ranks. Hasselbeck said that has led to changes in the way football, the sport he coaches, is being taught, especially in the youth ranks. He said coaches are teaching their athletes to tackle differently to protect both their players and opposing players.

Sometimes it takes a while for football players to learn, and Mr. Hasselbeck said sometimes that leads to a coach making a tough decision of sitting a player down, he said.

“We can coach these kids, but not all of them take direction the same way,” he said. “It’s going to take the person who is coaching saying, ‘I know you are my best player but until you can do it the right way we can’t put you out there,’” he said.

One parent who attended the event said she took away information on concussion symptoms and a greater appreciation of work being done on concussion awareness. Renee Murphy, 45, from Old Greenwich has two children, a daughter who is a high school diver and a son in seventh grade who plays multiple sports. She said her family has escaped any concussions.

“Luckily, we have been fine, we have had no head injuries,” she said. “To me it is knowing about the symptoms, to know in the future what to look out for. I definitely feel more aware.”

Patricia McDonough Ryan, a doctor, said that it was important that proper post-concussion care be done by the athletes, especially younger ones, who may find it difficult to avoid stimuli like playing video games.

“Initially after a concussion, it’s really important to pull back,” she said. “You want to pull back on stimulation, you want to pull back on activities to allow the brain to heal.”

She said that in the initial days after a concussion it’s vital that the patient relax in a low-stimulation environment. That means no television, computers and iPhones.

“The first couple of days you should really reduce stimulation,” she said. “After that, depending on symptoms, you want to meet the child where they are at.”

Those symptoms include headaches, sensitivity to light and movement and inability to focus on tasks such as reading.

If the child still has symptoms but is becoming restless at the enforced idleness while healing, Dr. McDonough Ryan said, parents have to look at ways to keep their child occupied while at the same time allowing the brain to heal.

“I talk to parents and say, Let’s be creative here. Let’s get some books on tape, let’s let them listen to stories, why don’t you read aloud to them, let’s turn on a show and have them close their eyes and listen to it and then experiment when they are starting to get a little bit better.”

While the data reveals that children who have had concussions are at a higher risk of having another concussion, Dr. Camel said that, generally, parents shouldn’t fear long-term effects of a concussion.

“The anxiety that I see in an office setting with parents is, ‘Oh my gosh, there goes Harvard,’ and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Dr. Camel said.

“To the best of our knowledge, for young children who have had a concussion or two there is no reason to believe there are long-term cognitive effects moving forward. There is no evidence to support that.”

He did mention that children who have suffered a concussion are on average three times more likely to suffer a concussion compared to those who haven’t had one.

“Once you have had one concussion you are at significantly higher risk of having another concussion. We are not sure why that is,” he said.

While the majority of youths suffering a concussion bounce back fairly quickly, usually within three weeks, Dr. McDonough Ryan said that a minority of sufferers do have a longer period of recovery.

“There are really kids out there who it takes longer. We don’t know why it takes longer, but in 10% to 20% it can take months.”

She also noted that female athletes suffer higher rates of concussions than their male counterparts. Dr. McDonough Ryan said that was due to males having greater strength in the neck to support the head better.

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