Doctor concerned for teen concussions

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by Annie Getsinger
For New Pittsburgh Courier

DECATUR, Ill. (AP)—Wendell Becton believes there’s no such thing as a mild concussion.

Becton, a sports medicine physician, said all concussions have the potential to be severe and result in long-term consequences.

Sports-related head injuries have gotten a lot of attention lately with Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby’s ongoing absence from the ice after a January concussion. There was also the suicide of Dave Duerson, a safety on the 1985 Chicago Bears, and speculation his death may have been spurred by brain damage he suffered while playing football.

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CONCUSSION EXPERT—Dr. Wendell Becton speaks about the dangers of concussions in one of his examination rooms in Decatur, Ill on March 21. Becton is a sports therapist for Decatur Memorial Hospital. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Mark Roberts)

On top of that there is proposed state legislation to protect student athletes.

Becton, who has treated concussions in athletes ranging from children to Major League Baseball players, said he supports a bill recently passed in the Illinois House. It would require school boards to work with the Illinois High School Association to institute concussion education programs for parents, players and coaches and set up guidelines to ensure that students who sustain concussions are evaluated properly and recover fully before returning to activity.

The majority of concussions heal completely, but that healing takes time, especially in young people, he said. The top thing that can be done for a patient with a concussion is ensuring complete rest.

“It’s tough to watch your team,” said 14-year-old Rylan Brassington of Mount Zion of the time he spent sitting out from hockey after getting a concussion in mid-December.

Rylan was checked from behind during a game in St. Louis.

“I got, like, crushed,” he said.

“The key to concussions is early diagnosis,” Becton said. “If you run right back to your sport or a lot of physical activity or your normal life, like schoolwork and stuff, that’s like a big second stress on the brain.”

Returning to activity too early or receiving another blow to the head can trigger post-concussion syndrome, a condition marked by concussion symptoms lasting longer than three weeks, he explained.

He advised seeking out a concussion specialist who will have experience in managing the injury.

Education is an important task, said Becton, adding that he sometimes feels backlash from athletes and parents who want the youngsters to return to their sports before it is safe to do so. He said he tries to explain that a few moments of glory on the field are not worth a potentially permanent brain deficit.

“It’s quite a butting of heads in battle sometimes to explain the importance to the parents and the players of why they don’t need to go back to contact and get a second hit while their brain is still recovering from a concussion,” Becton said. “… You don’t waver or compromise on the recovery.

“Concussions occur very commonly from hits that are unseen,” Becton said.

Rylan’s mom, Shelley Brassington, said she didn’t immediately recognize the symptoms of a concussion in her son, who went to school and took a test after his weekend injury. When he kept complaining of a headache, she thought he might be coming down with an illness.

“My older son was sick with the flu,” Brassington said. “So I didn’t know whether it was the flu, but he continually complained about his head hurting.”

She sought care for her son from Becton, who assessed Rylan with the ImPACT test, a computerized test for determining when it is safe for an athlete to return to play after a concussion. The assessment measures such criteria as attention span, working memory, non-verbal problem solving and reaction time.

Becton offers baseline evaluations for student athletes, so a record of their pre-injury cognitive function can be kept on file.

“It’s very important to have a baseline with the current concussion management, but even if you don’t have one, we still can make extrapolations as to what their function on ImPACT would be based on their grade performance,” he said.

Rylan missed the opportunity to get a baseline score, but the test was still an important part of managing his injury, Becton said. He safely returned to hockey after approximately five weeks of sitting out.

Becton said in the case of a concussion, it’s also important to determine how the injury happened and how the patient felt immediately afterward.

“We talk about the circumstances of the injury,” Becton said, citing loss of consciousness, memory of the incident, dizziness, balance problems, headache, visual problems, nausea, nervousness and numbness or tingling as important factors. “That part is more important than the physical exam to know the symptoms that they had.”

Brassington said she has shared her son’s story with friends in an effort to promote concussion awareness and education.

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