The number of young athletes suffering from concussions is going up at an alarming rate, so much so that the Centers for Disease Control calls it an epidemic. A recent study found a 60 percent increase in youth athletes treated for traumatic brain injuries between 2001 and 2009.
It’s so bad, Dr. Cindy Chang, the Chief Medical Officer for the 2012 Olympic Games, co-founded a Bay Area program aimed at educating kids, parents, and coaches about the dangers.
Without this critical education, some young athletes are ending up permanently sidelined, like 16-year-old Vinny Garaventa of Clayton. He suffered countless concussions while playing football and lacrosse over the last several years, but one big one last spring gave his mom Mikey a huge
scare. "Vince was going for the ball and the guy just hit him from underneath and he just fell back and he was out," Mikey Garaventa remembered. "The coach was saying stay with me Vinny, stay with me."
That concussion sidelined Vinny for eight months. "He basically took it easy, but not the kind of easy that maybe he should have," Mikey Garaventa says. When it comes to brain injuries, athletes need physical and mental rest. That often means no reading, no video games, and yes no school.
“Physical rest is just as important as mental rest, in allowing the brain to recover, neuropsychologist Eric Freitag says. "If we do that right at the beginning, we’re actually shortening the risk of longer term problems during the school year.”
Freitag saw Vinny after that big concussion and gave him a serious warning.
“I knew if i got one more bad one I was pretty much done," Vinny says. That’s exactly what happened when he returned to the lacrosse field again this spring. “I got hit from behind and I remember just looking up on the ground after that, not remembering where I was and what had happened," Vinny says.
Freitag then gave Vinny and his family a devastating recommendation. Permanently retire at 16 from two sports he loved; lacrosse and football.
“My dad took it especially hard, because he always saw me on the field, because he was always my coach," Vinny says.
Vinny’s not alone. Traumatic brain injuries rose from 153,000 in 2001 to nearly 250,000 in 2009. When it happens to young athletes, concussions can be even more dangerous. "There’s many developmental, neurodevelopmental things that make them a more sensitive to brain injury and takes them longer to recover," Freitag says.
Freitag co-founded the California Concussion Coalition with Chang. Their organization is on a mission not to prevent concussions, but to educate parents, coaches, and trainers about the symptoms which include headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, seeing stars, and ringing ears.
“This injury is not a structural injury meaning you can’t see it on a X-ray or an MRI," Freitag says, which is why it's so important to give the brain enough time to heal.
That's what 14-year-old Sarah Perlmutter did after suffering her first concussion earlier this year during a soccer practice. “It took maybe a month and a half to come back to soccer because i had to wait until I had no headaches," Perlmutter says. Now she's back to playing soccer year round for her club team in Berkeley, something Vinny can't do anymore. But Vinny is playing a different tune these days with his guitar.
"It’s giving me something that I’m passionate about other than sports."
To see the Centers for Disease Control Study on brain injuries in youth athletes and to get more facts on concussions, click on the links under documents.