Every year in the United States, millions of sports players suffer concussions during play. In fact, for athletes ages 15 to 24, sports injuries are the second leading cause of acquired brain injury, behind only motor vehicle accidents.
Football season is just around corner, and these players suffer the most brain injuries of any sport. Approximately 67,000 concussions are diagnosed in high school football every year, and at least 50 youth football players have died on the field since 1997.
Football player Christopher Dinwiddie, who completed his sophomore year at Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2012, feels lucky he was not one of those 50 players after he suffered a concussion during a tackle in fall 2011.
“After hitting the ground and laying there for a couple of minutes, Christopher finally stood up,” said Mindy Walker, Christopher’s grandmother. “It was obvious that something was wrong with him. He was having loss of memory and his balance was completely off.”
“I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on,” Christopher said. “My school athletic trainer told me that I may have a concussion and instructed me to see Dr. Seifert. I had heard of concussions, but I wasn’t really sure what they were or how to deal with them.”
“A concussion is a type of acquired brain injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that can change the way the brain normally works,” said Tad Seifert, M.D., neurologist and director of the Norton Sports Health Concussion Program. “Concussions can also occur from a blow to the body that causes the head to move rapidly back and forth.”
It can be easy to dismiss what appears to be a minor head injury. However, even the smallest head injuries can be serious. A “ding,” “getting your bell rung” or what seems like a mild bump or blow can lead to severe and even fatal complications.
In Christopher’s case, Dr. Seifert was able to recognize the concussion early and took the proper measures for treatment. Treatment for sports-related concussions includes a combination of mental and physical rest. A plan for a gradual return to play is begun only after the athlete’s brain function has returned to where it was before the injury.
Christopher was instructed to refrain from further physical activity until he was symptom-free. This approach is taken not only to speed recovery, but also to minimize the potential for second impact syndrome. The condition occurs when an athlete returns to playing sports too soon after a concussion and then suffers a second head injury.
“Because the brain is more vulnerable and susceptible to injury after an initial concussion, it only takes minimal force to cause irreversible damage,” Dr. Seifert said. “The brain’s ability to self-regulate blood volume is damaged, resulting in increased cerebral blood volume and brain swelling — sometimes resulting in significant disability, even death.”
Fortunately for Christopher, he was able to play in the 3A state championship game that season, which his team went on to win.
“I consider myself to be very lucky,” Christopher said. “Through this experience I learned that it is much better to miss a couple of games instead of my whole season or even career.”
Women and concussions
While football usually comes to mind when people think about sports-related injuries, including concussions, girls and women are treated for more concussions per year. Women tend to have more concussions because their necks are typically not as strong as men’s necks and so not as good at absorbing force. Nora Kiesler, a basketball player at Assumption High School in Louisville, Kentucky, suffered a concussion when she collided with another player during a game. No one noticed she was injured until Nora dropped to her knee at the end of the court.
“Just sitting in a fog, that’s what it felt like when I went back to school. I was present in class physically, but mentally I couldn’t retain information,” Nora said during an interview with Rachel Platt, WHAS11 Anchor. She was on complete “brain rest” for two weeks after her severe concussion, after which she eased back into schoolwork and eventually back to the court.