'Don't make concussion the Boogeyman,' expert says
By Greg Bach
When it comes to youth sports no topic has generated more conversation in recent years, and fueled more debate, than concussions.
And with good reason.
It’s a serious brain injury that when undetected – or ignored – poses serious health risks for young athletes.
But how data on these injuries is collected, analyzed and eventually used to best protect youngsters stepping onto fields, courts and rinks in the coming years are just some of the many unanswered questions swirling around this complex health issue.
“I think the story on today’s youth has yet to be written in terms of what are they going to look like as they get older,” says Dr. R.J. Elbin, Director of the Office for Sport Concussion Research at the University of Arkansas. “I think the care has increased, but there is still so much to be done. Changes in the clinical management of the injury and changes to coach education and parent education are all strides that we have made – and we still have a long way to go. We don’t know the outcome yet but we do know the outcome when nothing is done – you can have some pretty serious consequences.”
SportingKid Live spoke with Dr. Elbin from his Fayetteville office. Here’s what he had to say:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s your message to coaches and parents?
ELBIN: The message that I would want them to know is that the most dangerous concussion is the one that goes undetected and mismanaged. A concussion is a serious brain injury that should not be taken lightly. I think parents should talk to their kids about concussion and let kids know it’s ok to let someone know that they have a headache even though a headache may be related to other things like not eating or sleeping well, or not drinking enough water. But it’s always good just to err on the side of caution, especially with kids, because their brains are still developing. When done right youth sports are great; I’m a supporter of youth sports. We should be playing sports and kids should not be wrapped in bubble wrap. There is always going to be an inherent risk of injury – but the best type of prevention is to be aware and don’t make concussion the Boogeyman. Talk about it, I think that’s important.
SKL: Have we gone overboard in our fear of concussions?
ELBIN: I don’t want to say yes or no because there are just too many unknowns in the literature. I definitely think that concussion is an injury that can be sensationalized. Anytime we’re talking about a brain injury I don’t think that that’s something to not take seriously. However, I think that parents should be consumers of good, scientifically based information rather than conjecture or opinion. I challenge and encourage parents, coaches and youth sport leaders to seek out first-hand information rather than getting information from second-hand sources (e.g., media outlets, company websites). Find the facts first and ask important questions to your doctor, coaches and league leaders about what they know and what they are doing about concussion. We’re treating this injury and managing this injury now better than we ever have, but there is still a long way to go. We still have quite a lot to learn about the injury, especially with kids.
SKL: What would you like to accomplish in the coming year through your department?
ELBIN: I think within the next year I look for us to have data that will support and increase our understanding on how best to educate and increase awareness about concussion in youth sport participants ages 14 and under. My colleagues and I are striving to increase the understanding and make improvements on how to educate and increase awareness in youth sports stakeholders about this injury. It is imperative to gather more data on how many concussions are actually occurring in youth sport. There has only been one or two studies to my knowledge that have actually looked at the incidence rates of concussion in athletes younger than 14.
SKL: When it comes to concussions there are lots of people taking lots of different stances. When you hear some of this information and how it’s being used does it make you cringe?
ELBIN: It’s not really the information; it’s the application of the information. There has been a considerable amount of work done in groups of athlete populations that have had repetitive head injuries over the years and many of those injuries had never been appropriately detected, diagnosed or managed for whatever reason. The clinical assessment and management tools and approaches that we are using today are more sophisticated than the clinical assessments that were used 15-20 years ago. To conclude that today’s youth are going to have the same outcomes of what we’re seeing in groups of former athletes with years and years and years of exposure to undetected, undocumented and mismanaged concussions is a hard leap to make. We’re not there yet.
SKL: With all the information we have about concussions it still comes down to how seriously each league decides to treat safety issues, right?
ELBIN: That’s certainly part of it and the coach, and the parents and the league are responsible for creating their own culture. I believe that young kids conform to the sport culture that their coaches create. Win-at-all-cost parents and over-emphasizing winning versus over-emphasizing skill development, enjoyment and also staying safe is definitely something that leagues, coaches and parents can control. That’s something that youth sports leagues should consider – what message are they sending to kids? It may be ok to play through pain when it comes to a hurt ankle, but not a brain injury. Athletes should be encouraged to report any symptom of concussion. This all starts with the coaches and parents not dismissing concussion symptoms. Get your child and/or athlete checked out – just to be safe.
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