National Student-Athlete Day kicks off each year on April 6 in the midst of spring training, and is the perfect time to stress the importance of protecting young athletes from the potential dangers of concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). A third of head injuries occur during practice, and the cumulative effects of these injuries can lead to permanent neurological disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
National Student-Athlete Day was founded 31 years ago by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS), later renamed the Institute for Sport & Social Justice (Institute SSJ). The day was created to honor the achievements of high school and college student-athletes and is one of the country’s strongest endeavors promoting the positive virtues of sport, student-athletes as a whole, and the positive effect they have on society.
Sports provide our children with valuable lessons about teamwork, leadership and sportsmanship, which can contribute to their development as solid members of the community. But an analysis published last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed what many doctors had feared – that concussions were increasing in teenagers active in contact sports like football, soccer, wrestling and lacrosse.
The analysis polled teenagers and revealed that 1 in 5 of them reported having at least one concussion, and nearly 6 percent said they had been diagnosed with more than one. Even mild concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can cause headaches, nausea and irritability. While symptoms generally clear up in a matter of days or weeks, some patients reported long-term sleeping difficulties and difficulty concentrating.
Multiple blows to the head can be even more dangerous. Repeated concussions have been linked to the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that has been found in some former NFL players. Tragically, CTE has also been seen in the brains of teenage boys who had played high school football.
“To see this, a neurodegenerative disease, in a teenage brain, that’s tough,” Dr. Lee Goldstein told NPR last month. Goldstein leads the molecular research team at Boston University’s CTE Center. He has seen first-hand the signs of CTE in the brains of young athletes. He hopes to change the mindset of student-athletes and steer them away from contact sports that put them at risk for concussions and TBIs.
But convincing people that there can be long-term damage from head injuries in high school and college student athletes has been an uphill battle. He compares research on CTE to the early days of lung cancer research. The connection between cigarette smoking to lung cancer wasn’t immediately understood or accepted. It took generations to change behaviors and policies regarding smoking. Dr. Goldstein believes the same is likely true with football and other contact sports.
In both cases, change comes through increased awareness. Let’s make that the message for National Student-Athlete Day today and in the future.
Institute for Sports and Social Justice
Head Health Network