Making an Impact: Dealing with concussions head-on

By Annette Benedetti

If you’ve lived in Central Oregon long enough, you are likely familiar with the Jenna Sneva Story. At age seven she was a rising local star who skied in the Mt. Bachelor Ski Education Foundation program and participated in youth competitions at the national level. At the age of 19 she won the gold medal at the USA Snowboard Association in Skier Cross and became a local success story.

Left out of the story is the number of concussions Sneva experienced along the way. While seemingly insignificant at the time they occurred, in 2010—after experiencing the hardest fall of her career—all of her smaller injuries came back to haunt her.

Sneva had just entered college and found herself plagued with unrelenting headaches. As time went on, her grades dropped, anxiety set in and she had trouble retaining information and speaking clearly. She had post-concussion syndrome (PCS), a condition that limits physical, cognitive and emotional abilities. After her diagnosis, it took years of therapy and brain remapping activities to regain some of the abilities she’d lost, including her independence. As it turns out, Sneva’s story is a cautionary tale.

What is a Concussion?

A concussion is a type of brain injury that results when a blow or jolt to the head causes the brain to bounce or twist inside of the skull. The trauma creates chemical changes in the brain and in some cases, damages brain cells. If identified and treated immediately, most symptoms disappear within a few weeks to a couple of months. If a concussion goes untreated and is followed by a second impact, PCS and second impact syndrome may occur and can result in lifelong and potentially fatal consequences.

Addressing the Risk

Sports offer young athletes a great way to build skills, make friends and stay healthy. In an effort to protect young athletes living in Central Oregon, The Center Foundation has implemented a comprehensive physician-directed Sports Medicine Program in area high schools. It guarantees that every school has an onsite athletic trainer well-versed in concussion management protocols. It also ensures that an athletic trainer attends junior varsity events and that a physician is in attendance at home sporting events.

While having onsite professionals increases the likelihood of identifying sports-related concussions during a game, parents play a key role in their child’s diagnosis. Viviane Ugade, Medical Director of the Concussion Management Program for the Center Foundation says, “It’s important to educate parents because they know their child the best and can recognize if their child is acting abnormally.” Recognizing signs of a concussion can be tricky because some are subtle and others may take time to present themselves.

According to Ugade, some children may experience more severe symptoms than others. “If a child falls and hits their head and then gets back up and acts normal, there is no reason to call a doctor,” she explains. “But, if they look a little bit funny, don’t seem like they are acting normally or they are complaining about any of the common symptoms, then they should definitely go in and get assessed.”

A child who has taken a blow to the head and shown signs of concussion should be immediately pulled from any activity and should not return until a physician has seen them and gives them the go ahead. Rest is the most common treatment for a single concussion—patients resume their normal activities in small doses until they are back to their regular activity level.

When a Concussion Turns into an Emergency

In some cases a concussion can lead to a collection of blood (hematoma) on the brain. If your child exhibits any of the following symptoms call 9-1-1 or take them to the hospital immediately:

  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures
  • Inability to wake up
  • One pupil larger than the other
  • Unusual behavior
  • Loss of consciousness
  • A headache that gets worse and doesn’t go away
  • Repeated vomiting or nausea that doesn’t go away

 

A Cautionary Tale Turned Triumphant

While Sneva’s story serves as a warning for parents and coaches alike, she turned her loss into a win for Oregon’s children. Jenna’s Law passed in 2013, as an extension of Max’s Law, which applies to high school athletes, requiring coaches to be trained to recognize concussions and keep at-risk students off the field without medical permission. Her law states that these same protections extend to club sports coaches as well as volunteer coaches.

While a concussion may not seem like a big threat to a child or adolescent’s well being, it can be devastating when it becomes a worst-case scenario. According to Ugade, worst-case scenario occurs when a student athlete fails to report their symptoms and has repetitive injuries close together. She explains, “That’s when they are at risk for developing second impact syndrome, where catastrophic swelling in the brain can occur and they either die or endure a severe brain injury with poor recovery.”

Ugade says Sneva is a good example of how multiple concussions can have a severe impact. She is an even better example of why it’s important to educate parents, coaches and athletic trainers in concussion identification and management before school rolls around and young athletes hit the fields ready to play hard and win big.

Educate yourself further by visiting these sites:

The Center Foundation: centerfoundation.org

CDC Heads Up: cdc.gov/headsup

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