Encouraging student athletes to “just play through it” may be a thing of the past when it comes to head injuries suffered while engaged in impact sports.
That was the message that backers of a talk called “Solving the Concussion Crisis” hoped parents and coaches would come away with Monday night.
Several hundred people, mostly parents with some student athletes, gathered in the San Marcos High School auditorium for the presentation co-sponsored by the Santa Barbara Unified School District, Cottage Hospital, the Jodi House Brain Injury Support Center and the Sports Legacy Institute.
The group heard Chris Nowinski speak about head injuries in the world of sports. Nowinski, who runs the Sports Legacy Institute and is an adviser to the NFL Players Association, gave an engaging talk, beginning with his own past as a professional WWE wrestler and a former defensive lineman at Harvard.
Nowinski showed several stomach-turning clips of hits he sustained that caused his own brain injuries.
One concussion wasn’t diagnosed for five weeks, and he continued to wrestle and train in the meantime, and not allowing his brain rest was a critical mistake.
It’s all part of the “warrior culture,” he said, adding that “if you can walk you can play.”
“I refused to take time off for what I thought was a headache,” he said.
Nowinski’s breakthrough came when a neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Cantu, asked him how many times he’d been hit in the head and experienced symptoms like “seeing stars.”
Nowinski realized then that he’d had multiple concussions over the years, piecing it together by watching himself wrestle on tape.
Over the past decade, doctors have been studying the brains of athletes who have sustained numerous traumas, such as boxers and NFL players, and a pattern emerged.
Many of those players went on to commit suicide or die unexpectedly after long careers, and as doctors inspected the athlete’s brains, they found extensive damage.
By looking at a cross section of these brains, the Tau in the brain, which acts like “rebar in concrete,” had fallen apart, Nowinski said.
They also found this pattern in ice hockey players, as well as in younger players.
They found that something about being repeatedly hit in the head triggers the disease, called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
“The longer you play, the more likely you are to develop this,” Nowinski said.
Solving the problem begins with learning the definition of concussion, which is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that changes the way your brain normally works.
Signs someone may have a concussion include difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating, and becoming more emotional than usual.
Symptoms such as dizziness and headache can be subtle, but “that’s the only way your brain can tell you it’s injured,” Nowinski said.
Athletes can also develop symptoms later, and concussions can often take up to a month to fully allow the brain to heal.
“You would never let an athlete return with a broken bone, but for some reason we let players return with a broken brain when they want,” he said.
Last September, the Legislature passed a law requiring that a youth athlete suspected of suffering a concussion in school sports not return to play that same day, and cannot play again until he or she is cleared to play by a licensed medical professional.
“It’s going to be very painful for coaches and athletes and parents,” Nowinski said. “If the pendulum swings from too much caution, so be it.”
Changing the culture will be key, along with reinforcing the message that it’s better to miss a game than the whole season, he said.
“You are dumber and slower when you have a concussion,” he said. “That’s something we should tell the athletes.”
Athletes should also be encouraged to report other teammates if they observe any signs on concussion, he said.
Most kids won’t go on to play professional sports, so it’s important that coaches and parents learn to look at these injuries over the long term of their adult lives.
“Let’s focus on that part of their future,” he said.