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Concussions early in life could have lasting effects

bucaorg (Paul Burnett)

When it comes to playing sports, professionals aren’t the only ones taking hits to the head. Kids and teens are also taking hard hits that could have a lasting impact later in life. While new technology can help minimize concussions, there is no sure way to prevent them.  

Dr. Barry Kosofsky joins us this week to discuss new methods in concussion diagnosis and to provide an update on the latest effects of traumatic brain injury. Kosofsky is the director of the Pediatric Concussion Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He's a top expert on concussions.

What is a concussion?

Concussions are blows to the head that in someway impair function. This vague definition does not describe the type of injury or how one gets a concussion because it's different in every person. There are two types of injury that can cause concussions.

Coup contrecoup is one of the more common injuries when it comes to concussions. It's a surface injury from the brain hitting the inside of the skull, then rebounding and hitting the opposite side. New discoveries in concussion types help doctors understand long-term effects.

“What we’ve learned recently is there’s a deeper injury to the fibers in the brain called shear or stretch ... What doctors call diffuse axonal injury or DAI,” said Kosofosky.

DAI is caused when your brain stem stays in place, and the brain moves due to inertia stretching out the fibers in your brain. This type of injury could take time to present itself.

How is it diagnosed?

Because every concussion is different, there is no set way (like a brain scan or blood test) to diagnose it. Symptoms of concussion include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired balance
  • Confusion
  • Mental fogginess
  • Lack of focus/attention

Some symptoms are more serious than others and more rare. If a person presents with these symptoms they should seek emergency care immediately as these markers could indicate blood on or in the brain. They include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy (sleepiness)
  • Focal Numbness or weakening (can’t move or feel one part of body)

Concussions in kids and teens

Getting concussions earlier in life could have lasting effect, according to our guest. A study was released looking at football players and when they started playing. The study showed that an early start coupled with  more hits over time could be a leading factor in predicting lasting concussion effects.

“Before puberty, athletes and non-athletes don’t have the strap muscles in their neck that can protect against the inertial blow of a concussion,” said Kosofsky.

Because these muscles aren’t developed until after puberty for boys, it is recommended that they don’t play tackle football or head the ball in soccer until they are fourteen years old.

“Interestingly, women never develop the strap muscles that men do and that may be why after puberty they’re at greater risk for concussion when gender matched in sports such as basketball and soccer,” said Kosofsky.

New technology in preventing concussions

New field-side testing techniques are being implemented to not only prevent concussions, but identify if a player has one faster so they don’t continue to play. New developments in sports equipment technology aim to prevent concussions if they can.

“They can be minimized but not entirely prevented. We’re doing [a] better job now with new helmet technology with football. But football is an inherently dangerous sport and you cannot fully prevent the risk of injury,” said Kosofsky.