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The Danger We Don't Talk About In Youth Sports

Photograph by Twenty20

I recently came across a news story about a young high school athlete who suffered her second concussion playing soccer. After the injury, she made the decision to give up the sport. She had been playing most of her life and, at 17, was hoping for a college scholarship.

But the long-term risk to her health was no longer worth it to her.

Her mother, the team's coach, agreed. But based on the comments I read on the news article, many adults shrug off the dangers and think the benefits of playing sports outweigh the risks.

Some blamed her for her injury, saying she used improper form when heading the ball. Others simply said getting hurt is part of growing up. And of course there were plenty of, "Society needs to man up and stop creating a bunch of sissies."

I don't doubt the benefits of sports, but I do question whether parents truly grasp the risks surrounding concussions.

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I didn't understand how serious concussions are until I suffered one a few years ago. It was a shocking and sobering experience that has me looking at concussions, especially in children, in an entirely different light. And I feel strongly all parents should, too.

I was getting something from the refrigerator and, unbeknownst to me, my daughter came up behind me and opened the freezer door.

When I went to stand up—BAM! Contact. There were stars. I had to hold on to the kitchen counter to remain upright and call for my husband to help me walk to a chair. Minutes later, sitting with an ice pack, my head throbbing in pain, I struggled to remain conscious. My speech was slurred. I felt as if I were under water. And the nausea!

Then I lost all feeling on one side of my body and could not move that arm or leg. I was terrified.

I'm not ready to say we shouldn't have youth sports. After all, my daughter and I both sustained our concussions at home.

A visit to the ER ruled out a skull fracture and bleeding in the brain. Diagnosis: Grade 2 concussion. My discharge orders were for bed rest and what the doctor termed "complete brain rest." No reading, writing or looking at a screen of any kind. Driving was out of the question.

I slept up to 18 hours a day following my injury and struggled to do the most basic of things. It was a week before I could sit upright—two before I could even attempt to stand. And then I could only tolerate being out of bed for a few minutes at a time. The nausea was severe and constant, even as I took a prescription anti-nausea medication. For weeks.

It was months before I felt normal.

This wasn't the first concussion for a member of our family, but it's the first time I really understood how serious they are. My daughter suffered a concussion with loss of consciousness when she was just 7 months old. She had rolled off the bed and hit her head. I was sitting right there when it happened. Turned my head for a moment, saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision and, by the time I turned back, it was too late. It was a terrifying experience. Now, after my experience, I worry a great deal about a repeat.

To date, my daughter has shown no interest in contact sports. If she did, my husband and I would have to think long and hard about whether to allow her to participate. She also has a history of epilepsy, so we're very cautious. Her neurologist has sworn up and down that the epilepsy was not the result of her early concussion. But I blamed myself when she began to have seizures.

I'm not ready to say we shouldn't have youth sports. After all, my daughter and I both sustained our concussions at home. There is no way to protect our children from every danger. But parents need to be aware of the risks. Truly aware. And weigh them carefully.

I agree with Steven Flanagan, the Howard A. Rusk professor of rehabilitation medicine and co-director of the Concussion Center at New York University's Langone Medical Center. He was interviewed recently on NPR.

Life is full of risk. I don't think risk should be avoided.

"There is tremendous benefit to children participating in team sports. You know, there's a whole social development, learning how to work as a team and the collegiality, and there's so much to be gained from that, that I would be loathe to say let's do away with contact sports," he said. "That said, I think we have to make these sports as safe as we can, and parents and educators and coaches and athletic trainers should be fully aware of concussion." He urged training for all adults in kids sports to know when to suspect a child has had concussion and to make it a habit to remove them from play.

Kids who may have suffered a concussion should not be allowed to return to play, he said, and when they no longer show symptoms, they should only return to play gradually.

If your child does suffer a concussion, take it seriously and get her the care she needs. Know that once your child has been diagnosed with a concussion, she is at higher risk for a repeat injury. And even one concussion can have a long term impact.

It's serious stuff.

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Life is full of risk. I don't think risk should be avoided. I also believe worry can be a good thing—it makes us stop and think. I'm not arguing my child should be raised in a bubble; that would not serve her well. But the evidence around youth sports and concussion is strong. It's not a decision any of us should make without being fully informed.

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