Learning to keep head pain out of the game

Doctors, coaches, parents discuss head trauma in student athletes

By Sara Newman, Staff Writer
As published in Southern Maryland Newspapers Online, Oct. 8, 2014

Conversations regarding severe head injuries among athletes in professional sports have been nationally reported, but parents and coaches in Calvert County are concerned with how those injuries will impact their children and young players.

About 40 people, including parents, students, coaches and officials, joined at the Calvert Library Prince Frederick on Sept. 29 to discuss the potential dangerous side effects of head trauma, concussions and what can be done to abate them.

The Calvert Soccer Association, along with the Calvert Library, hosted a panel discussion and film viewing, centered around the chronic effects of head trauma.

“Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis,” a 75-minute documentary based on the book “Head Games,” exposes a problem that has been described as a “silent epidemic on a global scale,” according to the film.

Christopher Nowinski, a former Ivy League football player and WWE wrestler, wrote the book based on his own experiences with head trauma and concussions received as a result of participating in contact sports most of his young adult life.

Following the film was a panel discussion led by Harry Kerasidis, a neurologist and medical director of the Center for Neuroscience at Calvert Memorial Hospital, CSA President Mark McCormick, Calvert High School head football coach Rick Sneade and Mike Galvin, football player safety coach for the Prince Frederick Eagles, a local youth sports organization.

The film compared many athletes’ experiences in contact sports, such as rugby, soccer, football, ice hockey and boxing. The complications of repeated concussions and head injuries over decades for some of these athletes may have resulted in lifelong injuries and everyday impairments, including memory loss, the contraction of ALS, suicide and death.

Kerasidis, who said he met Nowinski in January at a concussion summit meeting at the United Nations in New York City, said Nowinski’s biggest concern was that there is an issue of informed consent.

With the majority of athletes being minors and youths, Kerasidis asked, where does the informed consent lie?

“The informed consent lies with the parents,” Kerasidis said. “The parents need to know the risks of what their children are participating in before they make the decision to actually participate.”

Kerasidis pointed out that concussions can happen many ways and 93 percent of all concussions will be resolved within a month. Rather than the concussion itself, it is the Post-Concussion Syndrome that impacts more people and affects their everyday life.

“The thing that needs to be driven home is that loss of consciousness does not define a concussion,” Kerasidis said in his presentation.

Only 10 percent of people who experience concussions actually lose consciousness, Kerasidis said. Others may experience “seeing stars,” feeling head pain or no alerting symptoms at all. When that happens, children should abstain from physical contact sports until they function normally again.

What’s unique of sports-related concussions is that there is an implicit and explicit acceptance of risk in that parents and athletes know participating in a contact sport may lead to injuries, including head trauma, and that comes with the territory, Kerasidis said.

“But who can really accept that risk?” Kerasidis asked. “In general, there’s a kind of ‘walk it off’ attitude.”

Combined with the athlete’s, parents’ and coach’s desire for an aggressive, valuable player to return to the game, Kerasidis said there are very few people who are advocating for the actual brain.

A suggestion Kerasidis made is for coaches to assign a concussion coordinator to their team, whose responsibility will be to test athletes before and after injury to compare their progress, hold the student accountable to rest until they are fully healed and ease the athlete back into full playing.

Sneade advocated for baseline testing of athletes so there is an accurate comparison of healthy performance with which to compare post-concussion performance.

“You’re always better off to take them out and get them checked out just in case,” Sneade said.

Toni Zinn of Lusby attended the discussion with her son, Tanner, 14, who had baseline testing done by Kerasidis the night before he received his first of two concussions while playing baseball in May 2013.

Now a freshman at Patuxent High School, Tanner originally wanted to try out for the football team but Toni said no after witnessing her son experiencing some long-term effects because of the concussions.

“I’m really concerned about him getting hit in the head again,” Toni said, adding that Tanner has felt some peer pressure about not being part of the football team and having an “overreacting” mother. “They don’t live with him and see what I see,” Toni said.

As a patient of Kerasidis’, Tanner will continue being tested to monitor his progress.

After seeing the documentary, Tanner had a different reaction to playing football, saying the presentation “woke him up” to the effects concussions can have.

“Why would you risk your life over four years?” Tanner said. “I don’t have any plans on playing football now.”

Tanner said he plans to continue playing baseball and golf more aware of the long-term effects of head trauma.

According to Kevin Hook, supervisor of athletics for Calvert County Public Schools, the state of Maryland mandates every student and parent of an athlete be informed about concussions.

“We’ve gone one step beyond that and mandated all students have baseline testing done,” Hook said.

Hook said testing for middle school students just began this year and is not mandatory. At the high school level, Hook said, all student athletes receive the baseline testing.

“If a student is showing signs of a concussion, this is one way that will help the doctors determine if they actually had one and when it has subsided to the point where they can participate again,” Hook said.

Dawn Balinski, member of the Calvert County Board of Education, said after seeing the film and listening to the panel discussion, she is mainly concerned with disseminating information to parents, students and families.

Balinski said her daughter, Alexis, 23, suffered non-sports-related concussions in high school, and understands how devastating the effects can be.

“My main concern is to make sure we do as much outreach as possible to inform parents of the issues surrounding concussions and instill in our own athletic procedures, at the preseason and sidelines and post-injury, that we understand what needs to be done,” Balinski said.

During the discussion, McCormick said the Calvert Soccer Association has appointed an education program and is sharing information about concussions with coaches, but the organization may be put in a difficult position.

“Somewhere along the way, we’re going to have to tell a parent their kid is not going to be able to play,” McCormick said. “I don’t want it to be an insurance company’s decision. Policies should protect kids, not any stakeholder in the team.”

Galvin said the Prince Frederick Eagles organization has more than 360 football players, in addition to lacrosse, basketball, cheerleading and baseball, and sees participation grow every year.

“We’re teaching kids new techniques on how to play safer,” Galvin said. “We’re actually growing every year.”

“I knew nothing about [concussions] before this happened... I wasn’t real sure what was going on with him,” Zinn said about her son’s head trauma incidents. “I think [baseline testing] should be [mandatory] for any child playing sports for a safety net and I think the awareness should be increased to parents, players, coaches, volunteers and everyone.”