Concussion epidemic in child sports spurs Obama, NFL push

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama announced $86 million in projects to improve detection of concussions in children and research their effects, an effort to reassure parents concerned by the rise of brain injuries in youth sports.

The initiatives will be largely funded by donations from the National Football League, the National Collegiate Athletics Association and Steve Tisch, New York Giants chairman, the White House said. Some of the projects respond to an October report by the Institute of Medicine that urged new research, including a long-term study of how children fare after suffering concussions.

"These efforts are going to make a difference to a lot of people, from soldiers on the battlefield to students on the playing field," Mr. Obama said at a White House summit highlighting the issue Thursday.

The number of Americans ages 5 to 19 with traumatic brain injuries in sports-related incidents grew 62 percent from 2001 to about 250,000 in 2009, the latest year in which government data are available.

"As a parent himself, he feels there's just not enough information out there about concussions," said Jennifer Palmeri, White House communications director. "What are the right protocols? When kids come out of the game, what symptoms [should we be] looking for?"

For Brandon Morris, who stopped playing football after suffering a concussion at age 19, it's an effort that's well worth the funding. He played for four years in high school and was a freshman at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University when he was knocked out during a practice. Months later, after his mood swings and headaches failed to disappear, his doctors told him that he could die from another hit to the head. That's when he walked off the field for good, he said.

"People don't realize what a concussion really is," said Mr. Morris, now 23 and a private equity analyst at Resource Real Estate in Philadelphia. "I felt a real, tangible difference."

"The long-term cognitive learning and psychological effects this can have on kids is devastating," said David Dodick, head of the Mayo Clinic Concussion Program. "It changes the way they learn, it changes their personality."

By failing to research concussions in young people more completely, "we're affecting the long-term future of these kids," Dr. Dodick said in a phone interview.

Over the past decade, the issue of sports-related concussions has largely focused on a highly publicized debate over the long-term effect on professional football players. But an October report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that advises lawmakers on health issues, refocused the debate on the nation's youth.

Institute researchers, who pored through more than 500 papers over 15 months, urged the establishment of a national monitoring system for head injuries in children and asked the government to finance new research on how kids with concussions fare over the long term.

Among projects announced at the White House was a $16 million long-term study by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to detect and measure effects of repetitive concussions. The money comes from the NFL, which pledged $30 million in 2012 to back research on brain injuries. The NFL also will spend $25 million over the next three years to promote youth sports safety, while the NCAA and the Defense Department will spend $30 million on what the White House called "the most comprehensive clinical study of concussion and head impact exposure ever conducted."

The Giants' Mr. Tisch will provide $10 million to the University of California, Los Angeles, to fund programs aimed at preventing concussions and to research their treatment. The money will also help the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention develop a system to "accurately determine the incidence of youth sports-related concussions," the White House said.

Micky Collins, clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, and assistant research director Anthony Kontos were among the few academics, researchers and clinicians taking part in Mr. Obama's summit.

"There was some encouraging discussion about the subject -- one that is very familiar to us in our program, and to people in Pittsburgh, around Western Pennsylvania and across sports America," Dr. Collins said. "The focus was on sports being a good thing; let's continue to make progress in treating and studying concussions in addition to working to improve safety in all sports. ..."

The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC have $6 million in research grants -- from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department and others -- to continue a 15-plus-year study of concussions, UPMC spokesman Chuck Finder said. Its concussion clinic sees as many as 20,000 patient visits a year from more than 20 states.

More than half of all young athletes fail to report concussions despite symptoms, because of pressure to continue playing, the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Dodick said. This "culture of resistance" complicates the collection of concussion data and studies of the issue, the report said.

Participants at the summit included representatives from the NFL and its player's association, the NCAA, Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer.

An estimated 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions are suffered each year by people of all ages in the United States, according to the institute. Dr. Dodick said this number could more than triple considering how many injuries are unreported and undiagnosed.


Post-Gazette staff writer Mike Anderson contributed.


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