GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - Playing any sport comes with risks. A wrong move, an unexpected collision, or hard fall can change an athlete's life forever. Most people tend to associate concussions with professional contact sports - such as football and hockey - but they are increasingly more common amongst high school and youth players in all sports, with lacrosse and girls soccer having greater increases.
In Minnesota in 2011, one out of ten athletes under the age of 19 sustained at least one concussion. While concussions are rated on a scale of mild to severe, the bottom line is that every one of them is a brain injury.
"Every brain injury is different; every person experiences something different than the other," explained Dr. Andrew Kiragu, Director of the Hennepin County Medical Center Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
Experts say that one of the reasons why we hear more about concussions these days is that the medical community has made advances in diagnosing them. The typical symptoms are dizziness, memory loss and headaches. However, there are hidden symptoms as well.
"Our youth, a lot of times, have headaches...physical symptoms go away before cognitive changes set in. So, they think they're fine and they're not," said Dr. Sarah Rockswold, Medical Director at HCMC's Outpatient Traumatic Brain Injury Program.
When HCMC started its concussion program in 2004, the hospital saw 169 patients. Today, its seeing close to 2,000 patients annually. Awareness and reporting have contributed to the increase, but so has the number of young athletes with repeat concussions.
"Unfortunately, if the person was kept out of play, rested and sent back they do just fine, but if they have a second or third concussion, we end up treating them for months," stated Dr. Rockswold.
Treating a concussion is not an exact science. The severity of a brain injury may not be immediately apparent, and patients recover at different rates. So, the first line of defense is simply to rest.
"That concept of rest is a tough one to get across to parents and kids who live in the fast lane all the time," described Dr. Robert Robitaille, from the HealthEast Concussion Clinic at Bethesda Hospital, in St. Paul.
The Concussion Clinic at Bethesda was one of the first such clinics in Minnesota. Since 2005, the hospital has treated over 1,000 young patients, mostly athletes. Doctors have found that a team approach to treating the mind and body results in a greater chance of full recovery for the athlete.
"It's a combination of perspectives from multiple therapists that allows us to put the puzzle together," explained Dr. Robitaille.
As the brain heals, physical conditioning becomes equally important.
Seventeen-year-old Libby Sergot became a patient at Bethesda after sustaining a serious concussion in November 2011 while playing hockey. The injury took her out of the game and school.
"You don't go full bore and say, 'Okay, go back to your game, see what you can do within the parameters of your concussion,'" said Roxanne Julius, a physical therapist at Bethesda's Concussion Clinic.
A brain injury can also result in mood swings and behavior changes, especially for a young athlete.
"It's a huge change in lifestyle for the kids...increased irritability, frustration, and can even lead to depression," said Dr. Maida Gunther, Neuropsychologist at Bethesda's Concussion Clinic.
After two months, the concussion team at Bethesda cleared Libby for play. She now has a new perspective on concussions.
"It's a serious thing, you're messing with your brain....I think it should be taken very seriously, no matter what sport you are in," Libby said, speaking from experience.
Avoiding a concussion is the best solution of all, yet prevention is a complex issue. The Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., is on the forefront of researching this topic, especially the viability of safety gear. Researchers at Mayo even created their own "hockey collider" to test the type of forces an athlete experiences on the ice.
Hockey physician, parent and sports medicine authority Dr. Michael Stuart is the expert at Mayo on sports-related brain injuries and is on the leading edge of concussion research.
"We know there is personal susceptibility and some individuals have a lower threshold for concussion and therefore at risk for concussions with long-term effects," said Dr. Michael Stuart, Orthopedic Surgeon, Mayo Clinic.
Mayo research ranges from athlete baseline testing...to helmet testing...to future treatment options. As for now, the goal is to keep everyone's head in the game.
"I think the number one goal has to be education. Educate everyone on symptoms and especially educate on how to avoid hits to the head. We need to change the culture," warned Dr. Stuart.
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