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Concussion Awareness Leads to Big Increase in Diagnosis for Student-Athletes, Doctors Say

A panel of doctors from Children's Hospital of Alabama said they've seen about three times as many concussions diagnosed since the adoption of new policies for high school students last year, according to The Birmingham News.

"Our sports-related concussion numbers are on the order of three times what they were last year," said James Johnston, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital, during the panel on Tuesday. "Kids have been hitting their heads the same way for years. What we have now is an awareness of what these injuries mean."

In 2010, the Alabama High School Athletic Association instituted a policy that any high school student-athlete who exhibits signs of a concussion must be pulled from the playing field and receive medical clearance from a doctor before returning.

As I covered a few weeks back, lawmakers recently filed similar bills in Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature.

Joseph Ackerson, the chairman of the Alabama Statewide Sports Concussion Taskforce, said that statewide data aren't yet available, according to The Birmingham News, but there are plans to study the issue in the future. Ackerson said the concussion numbers are underreported, and told the newspaper that sports-related concussions in his own practice have increased from approximately one per month to two per week in the past year, on average.

Ackerson's point speaks largely to what Johnston said at the panel: The number of concussions in high school student-athletes hasn't increased; the awareness and reporting of those concussions is what changed.

One look at a CNN interview with former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner from this past November says it all when it comes to athletes' "warrior mentalities."

"I think a lot of guys when they get, you know, those hits or those concussions, they think, 'OK well I'm just going to kind of play through it here for the short term, and it's going to get better,' " said Warner. "I would venture to say probably 100 percent of the guys that played my sport in the NFL have been there."

Now that athletic leagues at both the amateur and professional level are putting a heavier emphasis on the long-term implications of concussions—namely, that they can lead to serious brain injury, especially if gone untreated—the type of thinking Warner describes should (we hope) go the way of the dodo.

But, especially in high-stakes contests, there's no telling how far athletes will go to hide their pain. Former Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb broke his ankle on the third play of a regular season contest back in 2002, yet he refused to come out of the game. (He wouldn't even get X-rays at halftime.) If a coach won't even pull a player with a broken fibula, what happens for athletes who suffer concussions, a completely internal injury?

That's where the higher awareness component comes in. If coaches, parents, and spectators can understand and recognize the basic symptoms of concussions, they should be on the lookout for symptomatic student-athletes. It doesn't take an M.D. to realize that someone who suddenly starts stumbling around on the playing field like they've had one too many drinks may have some internal brain damage they need checked out.

Long story short, sports may very well be undergoing the concussion culture shift that Warner predicted to CNN this past November. But the burden to diagnose these head injuries falls just as much on the shoulders of coaches and parents as it does student-athletes.

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