A Dangerous Game: Kids and Concussions

Posted at 11:02 PM, Feb 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-04 23:25:49-05

There’s no question that football players take hard hits on the field. It’s been called ‘America's Most Dangerous Game.’

But the danger hits home for more than just NFL players.

NewsChannel 3 went to some of the country’s top experts in sports concussions to find out what’s being done to keep young football players safe, and we asked – should kids be playing the game at all?

“Everything was a blur”

Lawrence Anderson, 14, was in the middle of a big game last year playing with the Virginia Beach Mustangs, a Pop Warner team, when another player slammed him into the ground.

“I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was,” said Anderson, “everything was a blur.”

He wanted to keep playing, but after watching him out on the field, his coach pulled him.

He went to the hospital where he learned he had a concussion.

For Anderson, it's only happened once. But as more and more NFL players talk about the devastating effects of hit after hit, it's tough for parents to hear.

“It’s a little scary because you don’t want your son to grow up and have mental issues,” said Crystal Chandler. Her 14-year-old son has played for years, but now she's wondering if she should let her six-year-old follow in his footsteps.

“I’m afraid for him to play football because of all the concussion stories that’s going on right now, so maybe one day he’ll be able to play, but right now I’m not so sure.”

What are the long-term effects?

Dr. Joel Brenner, director of Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters Sports Concussion Program, says there's still a lot we don't know about concussion in kids.

"What we don’t know is the long-term outcomes and the long-term risks of a young person who’s had a concussion, whether it’s one concussion or even multiple concussions," Brenner said.

He has seen problems in kids down the road, especially kids who have had more than one concussion.

"Often times the ones [concussions] that are closer together can have more long long-standing problems, not always, but there are definitely people young people who’ve had 2, 3 concussions who have persistent problems, problems thinking, problems going to school, problems with chronic headaches," Brenner said.

There can also be some differences in the way kids heal after a concussion compared to adults.

"With a developing brain, sometimes it does take longer for younger kids to get better after a concussion.  We know about 75 percent of kids, high school kids and younger take about 3 weeks to get better, but that means 25 percent are still having problems 3 weeks or 4 weeks later," Brenner said.

What can be done to make kids safer?

Dr. Stefan Duma, head of Virginia Tech's Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics is currently working on a 5 year, $3.3 million study focusing on kids playing football.

It's the largest project of its kind.  Right now, there's still a lot that's unknown about football players at the youth level.

"What we want to do is track a group of kids from 9 years old for five years to understand football and look for ways that we can make the game safer," Duma said.

Traumatic Brain Injury animation | Courtesy: CDC

Traumatic Brain Injury animation | Courtesy: CDC

They're working with two other universities to track six teams.  They just finished the first season with the kids and are now going over the data.

"What we're seeing at the little age group, 7, 8, 9, 10, there's very little risk.  In the fall at all six teams we didn't have any injuries, no diagnosed concussions.  The bottom line is - they're not big and fast enough to really get to the energy levels that we associate with concussions, but what we need to do is track them and see how that changes over the years, what happens when you get to middle school, to high school and look and see if there's things we can do to modify the sport.  Can we change practice?  Can we change games?  Can we make better equipment?"

There's no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet, but they do want to see if there are ways to  reduce the risk.  Duma has done extensive research on adult helmets over the years and found that better helmets can reduce the risk of a concussion by half.  Now he wants to look at youth helmets.

"Right now youth football helmets are basically adult football helmets with a little different material," said Duma.

The problem is, kids' heads are disproportionally large compared to their necks and bodies.

"There's very little musculature.  They can't resist that impact, so the same force to the head ends up with a larger acceleration than the adult counterpart, said Duma.  As part of the study, they'll be looking to see if a different design would be beneficial.

Helmets are just part of the equation, though.

"It's not all about the equipment; it's about how you coach and how you play," Duma said.

Some changes already made

There have already been changes.  Bruce Pearl, coach of the Virginia Beach Mustangs, says three years ago they changed their style of tackling.

"It's basically pulling the head out of the tackle," Pearl said, "we're eliminating that giant hit."

They also do a lot more training in how to deal with concussions.

 Dr. Brenner says there have also been big changes in the medical field.

"We’re treating concussions a lot different now than we did even 5, 10 years ago," he said.  "Around 10 years or so ago, a little more than that, the standard of care was that if someone appeared to be back to normal within 20 minutes, they could actually go back to the game or practice.  Now we know that if someone has a concussion or is suspected to have a concussion, they should be out completely, evaluated and not return until they go through a set protocol, so that was a huge change."

We also checked with Virginia Beach Public Schools to see if they've made any changes.  A school spokesperson told us over the past several years, the school division has been systematically reviewing its inventory for the football program and removing lower-rated helmets from their inventories.  Although they said the school division never employed the use of the lowest-rated helmets.

Should kids be playing football?

With the risk of long-term effects from concussions, we asked Dr. Brenner - should kids even be playing football?  He says it's not a black and white answer.

"That's a great question and a tough question.  There are a lot of benefits to sports.  We want kids to be physically active.  We don't want them to be just sitting at home.  It's really a personal decision," Brenner said.

And it's not as easy as having them just play another sport.

"A lot of parents will say, 'well I'm not gonna not let my kid play football,'" Duma said, "that's not the solution because there's concussions in hockey, there's concussions in wrestling, there's concussions in soccer, in basketball, in all the sports."

"We actually see more cheerleaders during the fall than we do football players," said Brenner.

People who love the game say football can be dangerous, but they're working to make it safer because it's worth it to keep playing.

"It's the greatest sport in the world, you know, it's the greatest sport in the world.  These kids are learning so much about so much in life, from the discipline, the structure," said Bruce Pearl, coach of the Virginia Beach Mustangs, "we teach life lessons and we use the game of football to teach those."

What still needs to happen

Dr. Brenner says there are a few things that still need to happen to make kids safer, both on and off the field.

"If you look at how much time in college or professional leagues they’re spending in practice actually tackling and doing contact, it’s actually a lot less than what they’re doing in the younger kids, and so oftentimes it’s a trickle-down effect and I think some of the youth sports actually need to catch up with what’s going on in college and above," Brenner said. 

He says there also needs to be more studies that follow kids down the road.

"We need to do research about the long-term effects, also ways to prevent it, and then just continue to educate.  There are still people out there who don’t necessarily understand what a concussion is, whether it’s a coach, or parent or athlete or even some health care providers.  Often they don’t really understand it until their child has a concussion and then they come in the office and that’s when they really get it."