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Understanding the Potential Long-Term Effects of Youth Sports Concussions

Written by Berkowitz

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Youth athletes face concussion risks in all types of sports. While many coaches, educators, and team doctors are generally aware of the short-term effects of brain trauma, the long-term effects are still not well understood. However, new research suggests that the long-term effects of concussions – and particularly of sustaining multiple concussions – can be substantial.

What are the risks of sustaining a concussion during a practice or sporting event? The answer to this question has changed a lot over the past 20 years. As recently as a couple of decades ago, it was considered acceptable for coaches to tell players to “shake it off” and get back on the field – even when they show obvious symptoms of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Today, however, the risks are more well known, and youth sports-related concussions are generally taken far more seriously.

Awareness of the Risks Associated with Youth Sports Concussions Is Growing

However, even today, when it comes to discussing the risks associated with concussions, much of the emphasis is placed on the short-term effects. Perhaps this is because the current research suggests that most athletes who are diagnosed with a single concussion will not experience long-term complications. So, athletes are told to rest both physically and mentally for a period of days or weeks (which, according to the current research, is good advice), but then they are typically cleared to resume activity and competition as normal.

Based on the current research, this may, in fact, be an appropriate protocol in the majority of cases. However, due to the risk of long-term complications, it should not be presumed that this is the correct path forward when a youth athlete is diagnosed with a concussion. Coaches, educations, team doctors, and parents alike need to be aware of the signs, symptoms, and potentially chronic effects of concussions, and they need to respond to all youth sports-related concussions accordingly.

It Is Now Widely Accepted that Sports-Related Concussions Can Have Long-Term Effects, Though Not All Researchers Agree on Their Permanence and Severity

With more research dollars being allocated to studying sports-related concussions, medical experts are gradually gaining a clearer understanding of these traumatic brain injuries’ potential long-term effects. For example, as reported by University of Utah Health:

“Only about 20 percent of people might suffer from post-concussion syndrome, where they continue to experience symptoms after six weeks. However, the more concussions you get, the more likely you are to suffer long term consequences, especially if you don’t give your brain enough time to heal between injuries.

“‘[W]e’re certainly worried about the accumulative [e]ffects of concussions . . . . We’re starting to learn that perhaps these seemingly minor blows to the head, when they’re accumulative, can lead to depression and behavior change. In fact, we think that some suicides may be linked to the brain damage that results from multiple concussions.’”

Similarly, Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University reports that athletes, who are diagnosed with sports-related concussions, can be at risk for post-concussion syndrome (PCS) and may face long-term symptoms including:

  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Emotional problems such as irritability and not feeling like themselves
  • Headaches

Notably, Cornell Medical College also states that, “All of these symptoms can make daily life more difficult, both in personal relationships and at work or school. Over time, and especially with treatment, these symptoms will get better.” This final conclusion is not entirely consistent with the findings of other institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports:

“Repeated mild TBIs occurring over an extended period of time can result in cumulative neurological and cognitive deficits. Repeated mild TBIs occurring within a short period of time (i.e., hours, days, or weeks) can be catastrophic or fatal.”

In fact, according to the CDC, concussions can have similar short-term and long-term effects. These effects include:

  • Impaired memory and reasoning
  • Impaired sight and balance
  • Impaired communication, expression, and understanding
  • Depression, anxiety, and personality changes
  • Aggression, acting out, and social impropriety

Critically, the CDC also warns that concussions and other forms of TBI, “can . . . cause epilepsy and increase the risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders.”

Do Youth Athletes and Their Parents Need to Be Concerned about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)?

For many parents, one of the issues that has underscored the importance of paying careful attention to youth sports-related concussions is the rise in awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among NFL football players. In recent years, many NFL players have taken legal action to recover damages for the debilitating long-term effects of this disease. As explained by BrainLine, a national service of PBS station WETA-TV:

“CTE is a degenerative condition linked to repeated head injuries. . . . CTE can cause difficulties with thinking, physical problems, emotions, and other behaviors. Currently, CTE is only diagnosed after death by studying sections of the brain. In April 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a major program to better understand CTE, its causes, and how to diagnose it among living persons.”

The Concussion Legacy Foundation, a registered non-profit organization, notes that CTE is most common among athletes and other individuals who have “a history of repetitive brain trauma,” and reports that “CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts.”

Rest, Recovery, and Risk Mitigation Are Crucial to Reducing the Chances of Long-Term Effects Due to PCS and CTE

Due to the recognized potential for long-term consequences, and due to the fact that the effects of post-concussion syndrome (PCS) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may not be observed until months or years after a youth athlete stops playing, parents must be cautious when dealing with sports-related concussions, and they need to be staunch advocates for their children’s safety and mental health. In this vein, one of the most important things parents can do when their child is diagnosed with a sports-related concussion is to ensure that he or she recovers fully prior to resuming participation and facing the risk of a subsequent traumatic brain injury.

Among most, if not all, reliable sources, there is a consensus that sustaining multiple concussions – and particularly sustaining multiple concussions in a very short period of time – can greatly increase an athlete’s risk of facing long-term complications. Additionally, the brain is more susceptible to traumatic injury during the recovery process. This means that the risk of sustaining a second (or subsequent) concussion is greater at the same time that a second (or subsequent) concussion is most dangerous. As a general rule, parents should follow their doctors’ recommendations. However, if you have any concerns that a team doctor or other physician has cleared your child to return to practice too soon, you should absolutely seek a second opinion.

The Financial and Non-Financial Costs of Chronic Effects from Youth Sports-Related Concussions Can Be Substantial

When discussing the potential long-term effects of youth sports-related concussions, it is important to consider the financial consequences as well as the direct – and perhaps irreparable – physical, psychological, and emotional losses that may be sustained by the child. In our modern health care system, treatment for traumatic brain injuries and related conditions such as PCS and CTE is extraordinarily expensive, and even families of above-average means can struggle to pay their children’s medical bills over the long term.

However, the costs of treatment can pale in comparison to the financial losses a youth sports participant can sustain if he or she is unable to work in his or her desired field in the future. This is certainly true of athletes who had aspirations of playing or competing professionally, but it is equally true of those who are unable to enter (or remain in) professional fields such as business, engineering, medicine, architecture, and law as a result of suffering from a degenerative brain condition. When it comes to evaluating the risks of sports-related concussions, these are potential losses that need to be considered. And understanding the long-term effects of concussions from a financial perspective is crucial to making informed decisions about asserting your family’s legal rights.

When Can Youth Athletes and Parents Seek Financial Compensation for Sports-Related Concussions?

This brings us to the issue of seeking financial compensation. In Connecticut, we are fortunate to have laws that specifically protect youth athletes who are exhibiting signs and symptoms of concussions. For example, schools must notify an athlete’s parents within 24 hours of removing the athlete from competition due to a head injury, and the athlete must be immediately barred from competition until a physician issues a medical clearance. Sports concussion cases are subject to Connecticut’s general negligence laws as well, which provide financial compensation to individuals and families who suffer losses due to others’ mistakes.

In the context of a youth sports-related concussion, negligence can take many different forms. From coaches refusing to remove athletes from the field to doctors misdiagnosing athletes’ injuries, there are many potential ways that families can recover financial compensation for the immediate and long-term effects of sports-related concussions. Assessing your family’s legal rights requires a detailed investigation of the facts surrounding your child’s injury and treatment and an intimate understanding of all of the various ways that your child’s injury is likely to impact his or her life. This requires you to work with a team of lawyers, doctors, and financial experts who are intimately familiar with the issues involved in youth sports concussion cases.

Speak with a Sports Concussion Lawyer at Berkowitz Hanna

At Berkowitz Hanna, we have represented many Connecticut families in cases involving youth sports concussions. We have also represented (and are continuing to represent) many professional football players in concussion and CTE cases against the NFL. If your child has been diagnosed with a sports-related concussion, we can help you, and we encourage you to contact us promptly to learn more. To get started with a free consultation, call us or inquire online today.