Managing sports head injuries

There’s one word Jordan Sawyer uses to describe his actions after he continued to play in a high school football game last fall despite suffering a concussion.


Sawyer is an articulate young man whose mother is a doctor. He speaks multiple languages, is a 2011 graduate of Chicago’s Payton High School and plans to major in international relations at Michigan State.

Still, “stupid” rolls easily off the tongue of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound former lineman when he talks about suffering a concussion in the fourth game of the season.

After he missed the next game but was cleared for the following contest, Sawyer suffered another concussion in practice so severe that he fell to the ground and was taken to the emergency room.

“I kept playing (in the game after the first concussion), which was stupid,” Sawyer says. “In practice during the second one, I kept going head-to-head. I was stupid at the time.

“It was really hard to understand what was happening to you was really happening.”

Though Sawyer was concerned about his severe headaches and memory loss, words from his doctor served as a wake-up call.

“If I would get a third concussion it could be serious brain damage,” Sawyer says.

Sawyer is not alone, and concussions are not limited to football.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 3.8 million sports-related concussions per year in the United States. For the 2010-11 school year, the Illinois High School Association reported 166 cases of sports-related concussions. In 120 of those cases, the injured athletes did not return to the game.

While physicians won’t tell kids to avoid playing contact sports, they are asking athletes, parents and coaches to become more educated about the symptoms and signals of concussions and the possible ramifications.

“Part of team play, part of discipline, is playing through the pain,” says Dr. Hunt Batjer, chairman of the department of neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the co-chair of the NFL’s head, neck and spine injury committee. “You don’t play through a brain injury; you play through a knee injury. We have to create a culture that people know the difference.”

Spreading the word

Brian Robinson has been the head athletic trainer at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview for 34 years and serves as chairman for the National Athletic Trainers Association’s secondary school athletic trainers committee. He has witnessed a change of tune from parents when it comes to noticing the warning signs of concussions.

“I get phone calls from parents saying (their son or daughter) isn’t feeling well, can you check them out,” Robinson says. “I think phone calls like that five or 10 years ago wouldn’t happen. Mom and Dad would have been trying to hide it because nobody really knew the ramifications of playing with a concussion.”

Anybody who watched the Bears or Blackhawks last season saw how severe concussions can be. Quarterback Jay Cutler got up in a haze after being sacked for the ninth time in the first half against the New York Giants on Oct. 3.

Blackhawks forward Dave Bolland missed 17 games due to concussion-like symptoms.

Tragically, in the case of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, it was learned that his suicide death in February could have stemmed from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition linked to athletes who have sustained repeated concussions.

“The media attention is a good thing,” Robinson says.

What you can do

While headlines draw attention, education is the next step.

According to Batjer, children are more vulnerable to concussions because their brains are not as mature, thus making the recovery process longer. A second concussion, if not fully recovered, could even prove life-threatening.

“It’s critical that children know that coming in,” Batjer says.

He also added that girls could be at higher risk because their neck muscles are different than boys’, and they may be more vulnerable from a hormonal standpoint.

An athlete does not need to take a direct hit to the head to be concussed, nor can a concussion simply be diagnosed through a CT scan or MRI. Symptoms range from headaches to dizziness to memory problems to a change in sleep patterns.

Physicians like Batjer and Dr. Dean Karahalios with the NorthShore Neurological Institute provide resources to educate schools and leagues throughout the state on the seriousness of concussions.

“(Concussion management) is working into its own niche, our specialty,” Karahalios says.

Taking action

On July 28, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law protecting elementary to high school students from the potential severe effects of concussions. House Bill 200 states that any student athlete diagnosed with a concussion must be cleared by a physician to return to competition.

“We’ve got to take this beyond the coaches and into the classrooms and help people understand that kids need to have time to recover, not only to get back to play but also to their academic cycle,” IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman says.

This legislation, however, is not the first step taken in Illinois to protect athletes from concussions.

The Northbrook Hockey League holds a week-long program every year to teach players 11- to 12-years-old how to deliver and accept a body-check safely.

A large portion of schools throughout the state use a computerized testing system-ImPACT-to set a baseline for concussion recovery. Athletes take the test prior to their seasons under normal conditions and again within 24-72 hours after a concussion to see how well they score and if they need to seek further medical evaluation.

The Illinois Youth Soccer Association is making its athletes and parents understand proper concussion management guidelines as set by the CDC by distributing fliers and concussion-related articles.

While there is currently no football or lacrosse helmet made to prevent a concussion, and soccer players can still suffer one from improperly heading a ball, physicians, coaches, administrators and athletic trainers are taking a proactive approach to make sports safer and allow young athletes to enjoy the benefits that come from competition.

“Maybe 20 years from now they will come up with some exercise that will prevent concussions,” Robinson says, “but for now teaching a sport safely is all we can do.”

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