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New Trend Sees Athletes Leaving Sports To Avoid Long-Term Damage

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Concussion crisis. On playing fields across America, young lives are being derailed by hard hits. From the peewees to the pros, concussions are reaching epidemic proportions with a culture that still wants athletes to shake it off and get back in the game.

Mary Bubala shows us a new trend: young athletes walking away from the sports they love to avoid long-term damage.

Maryland teen Ian Heaton is a rising lacrosse superstar growing up in a family whose lives revolve around sports. In tenth grade, he suffered his third concussion.

"I went to go pick up a ball and as I was coming up, someone hit me with their head," he said.

He knew something was wrong.

"Really bad headaches to the point where I couldn't sleep," he said. "Nausea."

He also suffered memory loss, vision and concentration problems and his parents saw his personality fade.

"I thought he's never going to be the happy-go-lucky, bright, happy, charming kid that he was. He's just going to be this flat," said his mother, Lisa Heaton.

Months later, doctors cleared Heaton to go back on the lacrosse field but then he made a critical, life-changing decision: he walked away from lacrosse.

"I feel like if I had gone back and, though I may not have gotten hit, the chance of it was scarier than dropping the sport completely," he said.

Heaton isn't alone.

In California, a 15-year-old struggled for months after suffering two concussions and a Minnesota boy was sidelined after a collision during an ice hockey game.

"Despite some efforts to make sports safer, much work remains. Three hundred thousand sports-related traumatic brain injuries occur annually in the United States," said U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

It's now clear hard blows to the head have lasting consequences--and may be particularly severe for the young brain.

"An injury that is very individualized should be taken care of in a very individualized fashion," said Dr. Andrew Tucker of MedStar Sports Medicine at Union Memorial Hospital.

And studies show recovery time in younger athletes can take up to 10 days longer than for adults.

"Kids take longer to get better than older people, which is kind of counter to what you would think. Girls sometimes--usually--take longer than boys," Tucker said.

That's why Congress has gotten involved.

"This is a crisis," said Schakowsky.

It's a crisis so great that Heaton testified recently in front of Congress.

It's part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness about the impact of concussions on young athletes and a culture where players don't say they're hurt because they're afraid of letting down their teammates, parents or coaches.

Heaton told Congress for him, the risk of another injury wasn't worth it.

"I know a lot of people recover and return to play but the possibility of another concussion means I could lose everything again just like that," he said.

"I think the nation has benefited by your outstanding testimony," said U.S. Representative Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

Heaton has advice for kids who feel pressured to go right back into the game.

"Slow down," he said. "Just slow down."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the last decade, emergency room visits for sports-related traumatic brain injuries in young people--including concussions--are up by 60 percent.

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