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A series, by Ellen Abbott, on the issue of concussions in CNY.

Concussion series pt 2: How concussions affect children

Doctor Brian Reiger sees kids suffering from concussions every day. He’s Director of the Concussion and Sports Concussion Program at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. 

“A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that is caused by a blow or a jolt to the head,” said Dr. Reiger. “It disrupts the brains function.  In most cases, the brain looks normal and we see no evidence of injury but we know it’s been injured because it’s not working properly.”

Reiger says while there is no test that determine whether someone has a concussion, there are signs and symptoms.

“Very typically for example a person will report a headache or dizziness little sick to their stomach and they may be confused,” said Dr. Reiger. “Only about 10% of athletes lose consciousness so losing consciousness with concussion is unusual. More common is that the person doesn’t remember everything that happened around the time of the injury. We call that post-traumatic amnesia.”

If managed properly, there can be a good outcome from a concussion. That means getting off the field right away and taking it easy.  And when it comes to getting the athlete back on the field, Reiger has a regimen he suggests.

“So we’ll have him take a jog and see how he feels,” said Reiger. “We’ll come back tomorrow, now tomorrow  I’ll have you take a jog and dribble the soccer ball so I get a little mental concentration and balance going there, do that for a little bit, how do you feel good. Alright come back tomorrow, and we’ll do a little bit more and so on until we’ve satisfied ourselves that they’re really ready to play.”

Even if students are fine, though, after that first concussion, doctors are now more worried than ever before about the cumulative effect of these brain injuries.  Reiger says there is more research being done on this, with tests showing people with, for example, three concussions, doing worse on cognitive tests than those with no concussions at all.

“A bunch of those people with three concussions might not be complaining about anything, they might be functioning perfectly normal,” said Reiger. “But the chances of having some symptoms that don’t go away, that interfere with your life,  more frequent headaches, sleep problems, memory problems, concentration problems, depression.  The risk of those kinds of problems seem to does seem to increase with increasing number of concussions.”

Depending on the severity, it can take a long time to get over a concussion.

“In some cases symptoms can last for weeks or months or longer than a year,” said Dr. Reiger.

That was the case for Fayetteville teen Carolyn Tangoran, who suffered through multiple concussions during middle and high school while participating in lacrosse and cheerleading teams. She says one of the hardest things with a concussion is that you look fine, but still suffer the headaches, dizziness and fatigue, which led to problems socially.

“With my friends, no one really understood the pain I was in or going near my head,” said Tangoran. “Going near my head and pretending to hit my head wasn’t really funny.”

Reiger supports the recently signed law in New York that requires school districts to create concussion management programs. Among other things, the Concussion Management and Awareness act will force schools to immediately pull any athlete off the field after a suspected concussion. It also requires those athletes to get medical clearance before returning to the playing field   New York’s law also requires coaches, gym teachers, school nurses and athletic trainers to undergo concussion training,  This law though only covers school sports, and there lies the rub according to Reiger. Things like Pop Warner football and recreational soccer or lacrosse leagues aren’t covered.

“In general in club sports there are lower requirements for coach education either about the sport or safety in general,” said Dr. Reiger. “And while I applaud the bill at the school level, I still think we have work to do regarding the same protections for club sports and youth sports athletes as well.”

In our next report, we’ll see what one Pop Warner football league is doing about concussions.


Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.