Lisa Kelly was on a mission. This spring, her 8-year-old son, Jack, an avid hockey player, had just suffered his third concussion —the last two in March and April, respectively—and as a nurse, she knew that could create long-term problems if they didn’t find a way to avoid the head injuries.
“Each time, he recovered well, but it was too close for my comfort,” says Lisa, who lives with her family in Yardley, Pa. “I realized a lot of people don”t know how to evaluate for a concussion.”
So at Jack’s 9th birthday party in May, she struck up a conversation with one of his coaches: Did he think there would be any interest in a concussion education program in the league? He did, and the director of the league agreed, telling Lisa a concussion had ended his National Hockey League career. “If you talk to old hockey players, they’ll tell you they’re never the same after they ‘get their bell rung,’ as they call it,” she says.
Just as concussions have become a fact of life in pro sports like hockey and football—the incidence of which prompted the National Football league to crack down on concussion-causing violent hits—they’re on the rise in youth sports, too. The rate of these temporary impairments of neural function has doubled among 13- to 16-year-olds in the last decade, and it has increased by 50 percent among kids ages 8-12, according to Safe Kids USA, a non-profit dedicated to preventing childhood injury.
“There’s a new competitive culture in youth sports,” says Dr. John Hurley, orthopedic surgeon and team physician for several universities and high schools in Morristown, N.J. “Kids are playing more sports, often all year round, training harder and becoming better and stronger. And the speed of the game is increasing, which increases the impact of collisions.” Hockey is one of the sports with the highest rates of concussion-related ER visits, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In her interaction with parents and coaches in the league, Lisa discovered that misconceptions about concussions were pervasive. “You don’t always see the symptoms,” she says. “People think when you have a concussion, you’ll be out of it or have a headache, but there are some subtle indications.” Another common myth is that you need to lose consciousness to suffer a concussion, but in up to 90 percent of concussions, victims remain conscious.
Armed with the alarming stats, Lisa quickly became an advocate for better concussion education in her league, first organizing a seminar by a neurosurgeon that drew a standing room-only crowd. Next, she worked with SafeKids USA to set up ImPACT testing for the league athletes. The baseline testing aims to prevent “second impact syndrome,” brain damage related to two or more concussions too close together.
“The concern is that the athlete may not have had time to recover from the first,” says Dr. Hurley. “If the brain has not recovered, the second concussion could create a significant amount more swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal.”
The most effective way to prevent second impact syndrome is to compare an athlete’s neuro-cognitive function after an injury to the results of a similar test that was done before the injury. That first result serves as a baseline of the level of function, which the athlete should return to before he or she is allowed to play again.
Together with SafeKids, Lisa arranged for a local brain and spine center to offer the ImPACT baseline test to players at a discounted rate of $50. While not all the athletes were tested before this season began due to practice schedules, the test is expected to be implemented in next year’s pre-season routine for the league.
In the meantime, Lisa continues to spread the word to other parents in any way she can about how to prevent concussions. She even got together with a group of moms and learned to skate and play hockey last year as a way to pass the hours spent at the rink. But now they also use it as an opportunity to get insight into how their kids may be at risk for injury.
“You get a much better appreciation for what they do—it’s much harder than it looks,” Lisa says. “It does make you pause, but this is the sport he’s chosen, so it’s my job to make sure he’s trained the right way.”
For more information about youth sports injuries and prevention, and to watch a free 60-minute webinar, check out www.safekids.org. “The parents are the first line of defense,” Lisa says. “No one’s going to watch your kids more.”
Wanna see Lisa Kelly and her pals in action? Check out their skating video here.