There are 1.7 million United States concussion victims each year. Out of that staggering number, it is children that are the most susceptible. Not only are children more vulnerable because of undeveloped brains, but also the effects of brain injuries in the youth can last much longer than those in older victims, straining the lives of the families and children involved.
"Every concussion is different," said the Alabama Statewide Sports Concussion Taskforce chair, Dr. Joseph Ackerson. "The younger the child the longer because the brain is not as developed. It's going to be more vulnerable to some of the problems with the tension and the memory or processing speed. At the same time, these kids are in school. They are actively learning. One of the things about concussions is you tell people to rest. It's really hard if your a student in elementary school missing two, three, four weeks of school. It is a big deal. Part of the challenge is trying to help that brain rest in order to recover."
9-year-old Michael Murphy was diagnosed with a concussion after falling on the playground at recess. What was thought to be just another harmless bump on the head with a headache and nausa evolved into emotion and mental abnormalties.
"I became concerned when things seemed to escalate over a period of 24-48 hours," said Michael's mom, Dr. Shannon Murphy, a certified pediatrian. "Over the next ensuing weeks his symptoms would continue to increase in severity and they didn't go away. I thought what's going on? Are we missing something here? Could he have something going on intracranially that we don't know about? I've heard of patients who've had loss of consciousness with a head injury along with amnesia. But they seemed to be better within a few days. So I thought, well, my son's just hit his head on the playground."
It is a common misconception when identifying a brain injury when long term memory isn't usually effected. One-third of victims who are diagnosed with brain injuries don't lose consciousness. Even recovery time varies from child to child. Memory difficulties, mood swings, irritability, sleep disorders and chronic headaches are the toll concussions have on children and their families.
13-year old, Jessica Beckenstein, is one of the many athletes Dr. Ackerson has treated for concussions. It took Jessica 7-months to be cleared from her concussion and a year till she returned to cheerleading.
"We had no idea it would take 7 months to recover," said Jessica's mother, Colleen Beckenstein. "When people get a concussion, they look fine and speak well, but they're not. She needed to sit home and just do artwork. He told her no cell phone, no computer, no tv, no movies, no going out with her friends. She needed to sit home and just do artwork. She could listen to showtunes or country music really soft. That's what she did for months. She wasn't allowed to read and the sunlight bothered her. She had to wear sunglasses when she was in the house and outside.
Fresh off her 14th birthday and a year after her concussion, Jessica's headaches still haven't stopped. But this time around she's arming herself against another brain injury by building neck muscle through strength training in addition to her normal cheerleading practices. The same approach that Dr. Ackerson took before his son first started playing football.
"Before he started playing football at all, we also got him involved with an athletic training program," Dr. Ackerson said. "A sports medicine training program and a fitness program. So that he could develop muscularature to keep him safer. It was about strengthening those muscles that would help to protect him from injury.
Safety against concussions--especially in football--remains a hot topic. Researchers from Harvard recently revealed that former NFL players on-average die 20-years earlier than non-NFL American men. These athletes are contaiminated by emotional and mental scars. Even the most advanced helmets can't prevent a concussion. Doctors are still searching for a solution.
"Helmets keep you alive," Dr. Ackerson said. "Helmets keep your brain from being crushed or having your skull fractured, which is a more serious injury than a concussion. So they do stop injuries, but because the mechanism of a concussion is the brain moving inside the skull, you can't stop that from happening. The devices don't actually stop concussions. They may have a small impact on reducing them."
Although the government's implemented new laws to educate the public on brain injuries, not all signs are visible. Be aware of the emotional and mental side effects. Be aware of the severity. Be aware of safety rules. That's the best way to keep a concussion from tainting the lives of those closest to you.
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