Concern about concussions is growing amid headlines about former professional players who suffered long-term impairment after repeated blows to the head. It's not just football; concussions occur in a range of sports, from hockey and lacrosse to soccer and wrestling. Children and teens, with their still developing brains, appear at special risk.
The Institute of Medicine, an independent organization that advises the government, warned last fall that too many young athletes still face a play-at-all-costs culture that discourages reporting the injury and staying on the sidelines until it's healed.
Although millions of U.S. children and teens play school or community sports, it's not clear how many suffer concussions, in part because many go undiagnosed. The Institute of Medicine said 250,000 people 19 and younger were treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports- or recreation-related brain injuries in 2009.
"Parents and coaches need to be prepared and educated about what the nature of this injury is," advised neuropsychologist Gerard Gioia of Children's National Medical Center in Washington and medical adviser to USA Football.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "heads-up" campaign teaches signs of concussion — which may not appear right away — and what steps to take. Symptoms include confusion, weakness, appearing dazed or stunned, lack of coordination, mood or behavior changes and even a brief loss of consciousness. Recent guidelines say anyone suspected of having a concussion should be taken out of play immediately and not allowed back until cleared by a trained professional.
Gioia helped turn that advice into the "concussion recognition and response" smartphone app to offer guidance on the field.
As for safety gear, last fall's Institute of Medicine report found little scientific evidence that current sports helmet designs reduce the risk of concussion.