Head Games

Sports Legacy Institute founder Chris Nowinski details how to increase your player’s safety this season

Do you know the signs and symptoms of a concussion? Do you have a clear understanding of your responsibilities as a parent or coach if one of your players is exhibiting those symptoms? If so, you probably owe that fact to Chris Nowinski.

Along with neurologist Dr. Robert Cantu, Nowinski is the co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to research, treatment, prevention and education of traumatic brain injuries.

Chris Nowinski

The publication of Nowinski’s 2006 book, Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, which spawned a 2012 documentary of the same name, is often cited as a watershed moment in concussion awareness, laying out for the first time in clear, clinical detail the results of Dr. Cantu’s decades of research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Previously known as “dementia pugilistica,” and shrugged off as a “boxing disease,” Cantu found evidence of the disease in the brains of football players, hockey players, wrestlers and soccer players, plus other individuals who had been exposed to repeated cranial impacts.

Washington state, with significant assistance from Washington Youth Soccer, was among the first to take action in response to SLI’s groundbreaking research, passing the nation’s first comprehensive youth sports return-to-play law in 2009, the Zackery Lystedt Law, named for a Washington teenager who suffered severe, permanent brain trauma after returning to the football field following an undiagnosed concussion.

In the years since, education and awareness have increased exponentially throughout the country — today, 49 states and the District of Columbia have similar laws (Mississippi being the lone state to not yet take action), while the issue of the long-term effects of repeated brain trauma have been at the forefront of discussion in the NFL, NHL and professional leagues around the world.

Still, though, Nowinski says there is “a lot of work left to do.”

While more people are aware of the issue today than they were a decade ago, Nowinski says, there are still many misconceptions about what a concussion is, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it.

“The misconceptions have changed over time,” he says. “At first, it was that there were no long-term consequences, until people saw the data that shows otherwise. Now, one of our biggest challenges is educating people to recognize when a concussion has occurred. Our data says that in up to 90 percent of cases where concussion symptoms are shown, the injury is never reported. That has to change.”

In 2013, SLI launched a new website, ConcussionChecklist.org, to make it even simpler for parents, coaches and players themselves to understand the signs and symptoms of a concussion, know how to help prevent one, and most importantly, know what to do if they suspect a concussion has occurred. In addition, the site includes a three-minute, 30-question test that users can take to determine how well prepared their team, club or Association are for properly evaluating and treating a traumatic brain injury.

Nowinski says that the No. 1 step any parent can take to protect their children is to educate themselves on the topic — a task that ConcussionChecklist.org makes simple.

“For parents and coaches, it’s important to understand that no one is blaming them for not having known these signs and symptoms before; no one had ever asked them to know,” Nowinski says. “But now that we do know, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and protect our children. Often, the decision of a coach can be the deciding factor between recovery, and long-term consequences.”

While many of SLI’s short-term goals have been met — the establishment of an institute for the research, education, prevention and treatment of concussions, and the creation of a national awareness of the significance of concussions and their effects, Nowinski says that the movement towards the treatment and prevention of concussions is still in its infancy.

“Over the last decade, there’s been quite a change in concussion awareness, and that’s very rewarding, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” he says. “In the long term, our goal is to develop an effective treatment procedure for concussions, and that will take a while. On the other side, what can we do right now to help people play sports more safely?

“We believe that holding an athlete out for a certain period of time after a concussion will make them safer, but does it?” he continues. “At what age do we need to start limiting contact? There are all kinds of questions still out there, and they’re going to take time to solve. In the meantime, we can keep making progress to raise awareness, as we continue our research to find the best answers.”

Is your organization prepared to properly diagnose and treat a concussion? Find out today by taking the free test at ConcussionChecklist.org!

Washington Youth Soccer

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