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Expert Raises Concerns with Brain Injuries in Young Athletes

by on April 04, 2014 6:45 AM

A doctor who's seen more than his share of sports injuries, says today's commonly used tools to detect concussions in young athletes across the country are not sophisticated enough to show brain injuries that linger after symptoms subside.

Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, director of athletic medicine at Penn State, spoke about adolescent concussions Thursday at Pegula Ice Arena as part of a Research Unplugged series.

Sebastianelli and his colleagues have been working on cutting edge concussion research related to adolescents through the Kinesiology Virtual Reality Lab, which he says more accurately diagnoses concussion injuries - and shows young people often suffer from concussions 30 days after symptoms have stopped.

A concussion occurs when a person gets hit causing the brain to bounce around inside the skull creating a physiologic, microbiologic and chemistry problem, Sebastianelli says. It prevents glucose from being metabolized in the brain. The concussion creates a vicious cycle where the brain is unable to process material to feed the brain, "so your brain is literally starving," Sebastianelli says.

Following the concept of kinesiology professor Dr. Sam Slobounov, the Penn State team uses computer analysis to help identify potential problems with balance or problem solving through virtual software. The research, Virtual Reality Assessment of Concussion, takes a baseline of a young athlete's brain and then measures activity again after a head injury.

What the Penn State team has found is that by measuring chemicals in the brain, despite symptoms stopping, in many cases the brain stem has not yet recovered from the injury up to 30 days later. That means if that child returned to sports because the symptoms stopped, they would still be at greater risk for an additional and more severe injury.

The research also shows a nearly 30 percent drop in reaction time for the young athletes who suffer a concussion.

Sebastianelli says the problem is that the less sophisticated testing used today by athletic departments across the country does not detect the damage that the virtual assessment sees, which means there is great likelihood young athletes are being cleared to play well before their brains have healed.

Roughly 250,000 concussions are reported every year in sports, however, due to underreporting, the true number is unknown. Sebastianelli says the injury is underreported because athletes fear honesty about their injury could hinder their play time.

Sebastianelli says no sport is immune to concussions, however, the football, hockey, rugby, soccer and cheerleading squads see the most victims.

Additionally, Sebastianelli says there is a need for more oversight when it comes to preventing and treating concussions for all athletes – small children to adults. The responsibility starts with coaches who instruct elementary school children, Sebastianelli says.

"That's when the bad habits become engrained and things really become out of control," he says.

Sebastianelli says it is critical that coaches from "pee wee" to professional teach good tackling techniques and other athletic skills.

"The head is not a weapon, (but) it's being used as a weapon. It's being recognized now that it's not a weapon," he says.

Changes in football could also help with prevention. Specifically, Sebastianelli says the powers that be should consider changing onside kick rules. Currently, 11 players go after one player.

"Is there a way we can change that play so that one player is not so defenseless?" he asks.

Sebastianelli also dispelled two myths. He says an athlete does not need to get hit in the head in order to suffer from a concussion and he says no helmet can fully prevent concussions.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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