Northwestern Medicine

Concussion Symposium Draws Statewide Audience for Dialogue on Safe Play in Youth Sports

Northwestern Memorial Hospital July 28, 2011

Coaches, athletic trainers and volunteers hear the hard-hitting facts on brain injuries at Northwestern Medicine event

CHICAGO, IL – When in doubt, sit them out—that’s the message more than 100 coaches, athletic trainers and volunteers heard at the "Playing it Safe: Changing the Mindset Around Concussion Safety" symposium held Wednesday, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The free event hosted by Northwestern Medicine, the shared vision of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, addressed the hard-hitting facts about concussions and the new Illinois legislation that will protect student athletes expected to be signed by Governor Pat Quinn Thursday, July 28 at Soldier Field.

"Concussions aren’t discriminatory; they affect people of all ages and all activities, even in non-contact sports such as gymnastics or cheerleading," said Hunt Batjer, MD, chair of the department of neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "In fact, young girls may be at a higher risk than boys when it comes to concussions."

A concussion can occur anytime there’s a hit to the head causing jarring or shaking that disturbs brain function. “The brain is like jello, when jello is impacted it’s going to move within the bowl. The same thing applies for a brain; even if it’s the slightest impact the brain is affected,” said Carrie Jaworski, MD, head team physician for Northwestern University Athletics.

Attendees heard from experts in neurosciences, sports medicine and athletic trainers about what happens to the brain when a concussion occurs, return to play guidelines and why there is a need for a culture change in sports that eliminates pressure to play following a blow to the head.

Former football great Dan Hampton provided anecdotal stories from his years playing professional sports. “I played during what I call the ‘crash-test for dummies’ period. Players would get hit so hard they wouldn’t even know how to walk off the field,” said Hampton. “I wish these discussions happened back when I played. Today most people are aware of the effects of a concussion, that wasn’t the case when I played.”

A major misconception addressed was that a player needs to lose consciousness to be considered concussed. When in fact, the majority of concussions do not result in a complete black-out and coaches and athletic trainers must recognize those symptoms which can include: appearing dazed or stunned; confusion about an assignment or position; forgetting a play; uncertainty of game, score, or opponent; moving clumsily; answering questions slowly; losing consciousness (even briefly); behavior or personality changes; and the inability to recall events before or after a hit or fall.

“If an outgoing and boisterous athlete on your team suddenly becomes quiet or withdrawn, this is a cue that the player needs to be taken out and evaluated. The signs can be very subtle, but if you feel like something is wrong, you need to assume it is,” said Adam Bennett, MD, sports medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of family and community medicine at the Feinberg School.

Gina Martin, who traveled from LaSalle, Ill., to attend the symposium, is an athletic trainer for LaSalle Peru High School where they have already started implementing a concussion policy. “It was great to hear from a variety of presenters especially from athletic directors representing other schools; they are the ones who have a major voice on the field and it’s great to get their perspective on the issue.” Martin commented that her school will soon expand its policy to include all sports after hearing experts speak at the “Playing It Safe” symposium.

Another important message reiterated throughout the day was the need to sideline players until all concussion symptoms subside. Returning to play prematurely puts children at risk for a disabling or fatal brain injury. “Athletes must be kept out of the game until fully recovered from a concussion and this means all symptoms such as eating, sleeping and concentration,” said Kurt Becker, former Chicago Bear and high school football coach at Marmion Academy in Aurora, Ill.

If athletes begin playing too soon, they are at a greater risk for second impact syndrome which occurs when a second blow to the head happens prior to the child recovering from the initial concussion. This can cause the brain to swell rapidly, creating a serious medical emergency. “The brain is more vulnerable to injury after the first hit, so even minimal force can cause serious, irreversible damage,” added Batjer.

The coaches, athletic trainers and directors, were provided with resources to bring the message back to their teams, schools and parents. Northwestern Medicine provided concussion toolkits with educational materials geared towards raising awareness about brain injuries in youth sports. The Illinois High School Association, a partner in the “Playing It Safe” event, also announced that their website will host free concussion information including form templates and schedules for free concussion education courses.

Attendees were encouraged to create an environment safe for play which includes encouraging open dialogue and speaking up when injured. “Players can shake off pain in the leg, but they should understand that they should never shake off a head injury,” added Batjer.

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Megan McCann
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Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and Northwestern Memorial Hospital 312.926.5900