The facts of head injuries in sports

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- The debate continues in western Wisconsin over whether young kids should be allowed to play tackle football. After recent changes, students in grades 5-7 in Eau Claire will only be allowed to play flag football. The decision was made due to safety concerns regarding head injuries. Thursday morning on Hello Wisconsin, Tyler Mickelson sat down with Dr. Alicia Arnold to get the facts about head injuries and their impact on sports. Their question and answer session can be found below.

When we hear about concussions and head injuries, especially in youth – we often hear about CTE. What is CTE?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “CTE stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It is a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated brain trauma. It can result in change in size of the brain as well as abnormal clumps of protein in the brain that interfere with normal brain function. It can result in changes in behavior, problems with memory, judgement and balance.”

Do you think there’s enough research out there to link concussions and head injuries to CTE?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “A recent article in the medical journal Brain suggests that it is actually the repetitive hits to the head, the repeated head injuries, that are causing the CTE. So even if the head injury doesn’t result in a concussion, this research says that it can still cause significant damage to the brain which can cumulatively add up to risk for CTE. Research is still needed to learn more about why some people seem to be more susceptible to developing CTE.”

There are so many studies talking about concussions in young kids from football. A recent Times article we reported on suggested hurting the brain at a young age can lead to problems later in life. Then, an opinion piece was recently released from a physician, saying he’s letting his kid play football because of his own research. My question – at ages 10,11, 12 – what’s happening to the brain, how is it evolving?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “Our brains continue to develop into our 20’s. Part of the reasoning that some have given for being so concerned about head injuries in youth is the theory that the brain damage is cumulative, so the earlier contact injuries begin happening, the total greater amount that a person would be exposed to over a lifetime.”

I know sports can be tricky. We want our kids to stay healthy, but we also want them to get an athletic experience. As a 10, 11, and 12 year-old, is it be mentally beneficial to have your child exposed to a team? To bond with teammates and to win and lose?”

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “Sports can benefit youth’s socialization and teamwork and teach qualities like leadership and perseverance. There’s no question that physical activity is positive for youth and helps to reduce rates of obesity and the health problems associated with it, like heart disease and diabetes. There’s pros and cons to sports participation, and they should be weighed when making decisions for your own kids about sports.”

A study from The Journal of Athletic Training found in athletes between the ages of 15-24, football was the #1 cause of concussions. Two out of five athletes had symptoms of a concussion. However, women’s and men’s soccer also showed roughly 20% or one out of five players also suffer concussion symptoms. As a parent, what kind of symptoms should we look for? When is it time to go to the doctor?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “Teach your children not to ignore head injuries. Some signs may include confusion or disorientation or moving clumsily, symptoms may include complaining of headache, feeling sluggish, blurry vision or nausea. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that any athlete with a suspected concussion shouldn’t return to play until being seen by a doctor.”

Are there any recommended techniques to try to reduce brain injury in athletes?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “Research suggests that many head impacts are actually happening during practice, so one way may be changing practice drills to limit or eliminate contact hits.”

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