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Putting Their Heads Together For Concussion Research

It isn’t only NFL superstars who get concussions. It’s high school basketball players, cheerleaders, soccer players, even softball players. More than 300,000 high school students were diagnosed with concussions last year.Still, there’s no gold standard for evaluating or treating concussions in young athletes. This weekend, a group of coaches, parents, patients and doctors are getting together at UT Arlington for a conference on concussions and youth safety.

Last May, Lauren Gunter was playing softball when she dove to catch a ball and landed hard. 

"My head just kind of flung backwards and everything was spinning around," she says. Gunter, a Varsity catcher at Crowley High School outside Fort Worth, says she was dizzy, but kept playing. A few days later she was still nauseous, but figured it couldn't be serious because she didn’t even hit her head. 

Turns out, you don't have to hit your head to get a concussion. Dr. Damond Blueitt, who treated Gunter, is director of Ben Hogan Texas Health Sports Medicine and specializes in concussion management. He explains a concussion can be the result of a fall or a quick movement.

I always tell everyone – just because you didn’t hit your head doesn’t mean you don’t have a concussion. Also, just because you have a headache doesn’t mean you have a concussion. So it can be very difficult.”

The number of high school athletes diagnosed with concussions has significantly increased over the last decade. From 9% in 2005 to 22% in 2012. Blueitt says the jump is probably due to more people reporting the injury. Still, according to Blueitt’s colleague, Dr. Jake Resch, nearly half of concussions go unreported. Resch says diagnosing a concussion is no easy task. Resch, who runs the Brain Injury Lab at UT Arlington is organizing this year’s concussion conference. He uses a battery of tests including a neurocognitive computer test called ImPACT.

Younger athletes take longer to recover than those guys in the NFL - usually about eleven days. But after those initial symptoms subside, we don’t know what happens. That’s why Resch is working with a team of North Texas doctors to follow athletes for several years.

“The thing I’m most excited about learning from our study is the long term effects of the injury. Does one or two concussions really deter a high school student from normal development (…) and impact them longer than the eleven to fifteen days we associate with a sports concussion.”

Resch hopes to have results, and possibly answers, by this summer. 

Concussion Break Down

  • There are between an estimated 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related concussions in the United States every year.
  • More than 300,000 concussion injuries were documented during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study.
  • Concussions are more common in people ages 15 to 19, and concussions are more damaging to adolescent brains than adult brains.
  • A  2011 study reported that, for all athletes, concussion rates in high school athletics have increased by 16% annually from the 1997-1998 to 2007-2008 academic years, possibly resulting from an increase in injury or diagnosis. 
  • Over half of all concussions go unreported.
  • While the majority of student athletes who get a concussion can be expected to recover within a few weeks, the danger is increased if they experience a second concussion, or if they return to the field before the brain has fully healed.
  • Boys’ soccer games have the highest percentage of all high school sports concussions, 34%. Followed by girls soccer (30%) and girls volleyball (29%).  
  • Texas has enacted strong youth sports concussion safety laws: In 2012, “Natasha’s Law” passed, requiring among other things, training for coaches and athletic trainers on how to react when players sustain concussions.  And in 2013, Texas State Rep. Eddie Lucio III filed a bill that would limit high school teams to one full-contact practice per week.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.