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Preventing Concussions

Joseph Polhamus, 3, of Olivet, Mich., looks up at Ann Grzeskowiak of Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall, Mich., as she adjusts Joseph's helmet during the Derek Edwards Bike Safety Rodeo at a K-Mart parking lot in Marshall
AP Photo/Battle Creek Enquirer
Funeral services are being held Saturday for Taylor Davison of Bartlett, Illinois. The 10-year-old girl died this week from head injuries she sustained playing football. While the great majority of head injuries do not result in death, all should be taken seriously.

Dr. Mark Lovell is a sports concussion specialist at The University Of Pittsburgh. He has tips on how parents can keep their children safe.

Definition: "A concussion is a traumatically induced alteration in mental functioning that occurs when an individual is struck on the head or when the brain shifts rapidly within the skull. This does not necessarily involve the person being knocked out. Usually, the effects of a concussion are temporary," says Dr. Lovell.

Causes: Concussions are most likely to happen as a result of a blow to the side of the head, rather than the front or top, as originally thought, according to new research conducted by Biokinetics & Associates. Researchers analyzed videotapes of actual concussions suffered during NFL games and found that 70 percent occurred due to hits to the side of the face or jaw area.

Incidence: Football is responsible for approximately 100,000 concussions in the United States each year.

Symptoms: Part of the danger of concussions is that there is no universal method for diagnosing them. Some players may suffer from a concussion and not even realize it. In addittion to the more common symptoms listed below, other symptoms of a concussion may include disorientation, confusion, dizziness, amnesia, uncoordinated hand-eye movements, and sometimes unconsciousness. The loss of consciousness results from the disturbance of the brain's electrical activity. Severe concussion, although rare, can lead to brain swelling, cell and blood vessel damage and even death.

Here are Dr. Lovell's description of the symptoms of a concussion:

Headache
A headache is the most common symptom following a concussion and the report of a headache by an athlete should lead to further evaluation. Concussions can also lead to migraine headaches in some athletes.

Balance Problems:
Balance problems are also common following a concussion and the athlete may stumble or appear off-balance on the field.

Double Vision
Visual disturbances are also very common following a concussion and athletes may report double vision, fuzziness of vision or sensitivity to light.

Lightheadedness
This is one of the most common complaints following a concussion. Athletes report feeling not as mentally sharp and may respond more slowly to questions. They may also appear glassy-eyed or dazed.

Memory Problems
We are finding the extent of memory problems may be one of the most important determinants of concussion severity. It is important to evaluate memory difficulties on the field. We frequently ask the athlete to remember three to five words for five minutes and also quiz the athlete about memory of events during the game (both before and after the injury).

Loss Of Consciousness
Although you don't need to be knocked out to have a concussion, any loss of consciousness means that the athlete has suffered a relatively severe concussion. This can be difficult to determine if the athlete is knocked out for only a few seconds.

Complications: Victims of concussions may face other problems as well, including second impact syndrome, which can be extremely dangerous if a second concussion occurs while someone is still suffering the effects of a previous one. Multiple concussions also can have long-term effects, including memory loss and a decline in brain function.

How to Prevent concussions: Parents of football players should ask their coach or athletic director about the type of helmet that's currently used by their team.

What to look for when buying a helmet:

  • The helmet should be NOCSAE certified. NOCSAE stands for National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment.
  • The helmet should have extra padding. New design features are "beefing up" the side and chin area of the helmet.
  • The helmet should fit well

"Although we may not be able to prevent concussions, we do believe that we can limit the severity of injury by using proper equipment, diagnosing the injury properly and by making sure that athlete does not return to play too soon after injury," says Dr. Lovell.

A child can return to the field when he or she is "completely free of any symptoms such as headache, both at rest and after physical exertion or exercise. No child should be allowed to return to play with symptoms. Memory function should also be normal. We determine this through performing specialized tests prior to returning the kids to the field," explains Dr. Lovell.