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Video:Concussions: This Is Your Brain on Sports

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'Head Games' exposes the truth about what happens to athletes' brains after years of play.

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JL A (281)
Tuesday August 27, 2013, 1:18 pm

Concussions: This Is Your Brain on Sports

‘Head Games’ exposes the truth about what happens to athletes’ brains after years of play.
February 7, 2013
Andri Antoniades

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Andri Antoniades
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

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Athletes risk concussions. People assume that concussions are only for professional athletes, but kids are actually at greater risk. (Photo: J. Merick/Getty Images)

In 2003 Christopher Nowinski was a former All-Ivy football player and Harvard grad enjoying a successful wrestling career with the WWE. During a televised match, he took a hit to the head that was severe enough to make him momentarily forget where he was. Though the wrestler shrugged it off and finished the event, what followed was five years of depression, headaches, and short-term memory problems that kept him out of work and searching for answers.

Eventually Nowinski was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome, revealing that he hadn’t suffered just one concussion his last night in the ring, but hundreds over the course of his sports career—and he wasn’t alone.

In the new documentary Head Games, based upon Nowinski’s book of the same title, the athlete exposes the sports industry’s open secret: Widespread head injuries are a common occurrence for all players—including the kids who play in after-school leagues.

Often ignored as an inevitable part of the game, new research proves that those who sustain repeated hits to the head, mild or otherwise, are at increased risk for long-term memory loss, dementia, depression and suicide—and those symptoms can manifest years after the athletes have stopped playing.

While Head Games isn’t about banning sports, it is about bringing to light a need for greater education and protection against brain trauma that’s become an everyday occurrence in leagues across the country.

“The number one reason why we don’t speak up [after being hit in the head] is because we’ve never been trained to speak up,” Nowinski tells TakePart. “Everyone is taught not to go to your coach and complain about problems unless they are so dramatic that you can’t compete. And concussions are rarely so devastating that you can’t play through them. So athletes thought they’d been doing the right thing by ignoring the symptoms.”

According to the research, even though players can usually continue playing after taking a hit to the head, they shouldn’t. And children especially need to stay sidelined for months at a time after enduring a head injury, even when seemingly minor. The reason is simple: Sustaining one concussion and letting it heal most likely means a full recovery, but sustaining a second while still healing from the first is infinitely more dangerous to the brain’s long-term health.

The answer seems simple: We need better helmets. But Nowinski says those won’t prevent concussive symptoms. “Helmets can only do so much to protect the brain, because your brain’s floating in fluid inside the skull,” he says. “The problem is your brain accelerates quickly hitting the skull and helmets are not protective enough to prevent that from happening.”

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Though all ages are at risk, the younger the player, the more vulnerable she is—and that’s why Nowinski recommends increased education and prevention. If more coaches and parents were aware of the dangers, kids in high school football wouldn’t have full-contact practices five days a week; they’d have one, just like in the NFL. Similarly, while little league coaches count every pitch thrown in order to prevent damage to a growing arm, the same type of watchful precaution needs to happen when it comes a child’s brain.

“Children aren’t born knowing what they’re brain is and what a concussion does and to this day, we don’t train them to do that. They rarely report concussion problems, so we aren’t diagnosing them,” Nowinski says. “We need to do more when it comes to prevention, we need to lower their exposure and we need to improve our medical structure to provide for them. The NFL teams have ten doctors and children have nothing.”

Nowinski and his crew of filmmakers are hoping that Head Games will become standard viewing in locker rooms around the country, especially for the smallest players. The film's theatrical DVD launch will be this August, but you can watch it now on sites like Amazon and iTunes.

While there’s nothing wrong with cheering on our kids to push themselves on the field, it’s imperative we protect them while they do it.

Kit B (276)
Tuesday August 27, 2013, 1:25 pm

As long as there is big money in sports and crazy fans (like me) there will not be safety from sports. Players are about as padded and protected as they can be, but the head still moves back and forth, violently. Sports fans do know, and players know, but...there is big them thar sports!

JL A (281)
Tuesday August 27, 2013, 2:05 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last day.

Sheila D (194)
Tuesday August 27, 2013, 3:29 pm
Unfortunately, there will always be those parents who played these same sports and "nothing happened to me" attitude - especially those loud, crazy, obnoxious parents who boo every call against the kids...we've all been subjected to their boisterousness at least once.

JL A (281)
Tuesday August 27, 2013, 3:40 pm
You cannot currently send a star to GGma Sheila because you have done so within the last day.

JL A (281)
Tuesday August 27, 2013, 4:09 pm
Thanks for the video link Terry! You cannot currently send a star to Terry because you have done so within the last day.

Gene J (290)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 4:56 am
"The answer seems simple: We need better helmets. But Nowinski says those won’t prevent concussive symptoms."

That has never been the answer. If it were, the numbers of athletes with all manner of dread diseases in sports that don't even use helmets would not be at the level it is. It doesn't begin at the professional level either, it begins when they are children chasing a puck or a football or dribbling a basketball, hitting a baseball, heading a soccer ball. And then you get to the truly violent sports like mixed martial arts. Sports is really big money, the athletes, some of them get very rich, the owners even richer, only the athletes don't live long enough to enjoy those riches, or don't live a healthy life due to the effects of concussions most of which go undiagnosed except at the major league level either professionally or in collegiate sports. Money before people always makes the rich, richer and the people playing crippled in myriad ways. It has been ever thus. Despite all the talk and the newest findings, nothing is changing and palliatives like better helmets cannot prevent the carnage to athletes bodies.

Peggy A (0)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 7:58 am

JL A (281)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 11:55 am
Helmet design seems to protect from the worst impacts in a single event; however, this is a repetitive trauma condition and most doctors tell people they cannot tolerate more than a a very small number of concussions before they are at risk of brain damage, most typically the kind creating behavioral problems like abusive, violent acts and anger management problems.

Joanne Dixon (38)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 12:47 pm
Helmets can protect from impacts but not from shaking. Who was it that called sports "War Porn"?

Barb K (1688)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 10:19 pm
I just watched this on NIGHTLINE. Unless football players wise up and realize they could suffer irreversible brain damage from playing football, nothing's going to change. The only thing I can think of that might help is adding a neck brace to their uniforms. I don't mean an actual metal neck brace; I see a stiff, yet a little flexible, material that would 'hug' the players' necks and protect their heads from going completely back. I am not a doctor but being brain injured myself, and being around a lot of different brain injuries, I can tell you that the neck needs protected given it's the instrument that supports the head. I wish I could meet with a few sports doctors and describe my idea to them so they could sketch it out and then they'd know what materials the needed to produce the neck brace. TY JL.
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