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New Book Aims to Debunk Myths About Youth-Sports Concussions

With research into youth-sports concussions increasing exponentially over recent years, misinformation about the consequences of such injuries has become more prolific, too. Though studies frequently stress the need for more research before drawing a causal link between sports and long-term brain trauma, that message can be lost in translation as those findings make their way to the media.

In their new book, "Back in the Game: Why Concussion Doesn't Have to End Your Athletic Career," Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher and journalist Joanne Gerstner set out to dispel some of the myths regarding youth-sports concussions. They repeatedly emphasize how every concussion is different and how there isn't a one-size-fits-all method to diagnose, treat and/or prevent concussions across athletes of all genders and ages. Instead, each athlete must be treated by a trained medical professional on a case-by-case basis, with coaches, parents and teachers all playing a vital role in the recovery of a concussed athlete, too.

Gerstner, who won a Knight-Wallace Fellowship in 2013, embedded herself with Kutcher's neurology practice to gain a better understanding of concussions. In an interview with Education Week on Thursday, Gerstner said the year she spent with Kutcher made her realize the number of misconceptions that were circulating among young athletes and their parents when it came to sports-related concussions.

"I think we're swinging hopefully back to the middle, where we went from a position of complete ignorance maybe two decades ago, like, 'Oh, it's just a bump on the head,' to now the other side of, 'Oh my gosh, I can never let my son play football or soccer or whatever because he's going to get hurt,'" she said. "Well... we need to have dialogue, we need to be talking, we need to be informing each other, and yes, we need to be looking at what happens to long-term athlete brain health for everybody. Not just the pros, not just for the guys who are getting drafted and the NBA stars of the future; we need to worry about that 8-year old playing football or soccer or swimming, about their brain and their future, just as much as we worry about the guys in the NFL."

In the book, Kutcher and Gerstner suggest overprotectiveness with regard to concussions can have unintended detrimental side effects, as sports have plenty of positive benefits for children. Rather than downplay the potential long-term consequences of concussions and other head trauma, they explain the details of such injuries and how everyone involved in youth sports has a role to play when it comes to facilitating recovery.

"No. 1, we hope that they have a better understanding of what is a concussion. Basically, what does it look like, what does it feel like? Understand that it might look like and feel like a different thing for different people," Gerstner said. "...Hopefully, they walk away with a richer understanding of the different facets of concussion. And hopefully they walk away less scared. We want to demystify it. "

Prior to becoming a Knight-Wallace Fellow, Gerstner covered concussions while writing for the New York Times. Upon syncing up with Kutcher, she realized that she, too, didn't have a completely accurate understanding of sports-related head trauma.

"What I'm taught on the observational side of sports is, "Oh, well, someone looks like they're hurt. And their head took a big hit. The quarterback got sacked, so they're going to do that concussion protocol thing, whatever that is, and they're going to figure out right there and then whether he's OK. If he comes back in, he's totally fine, but if they leave him out, he's obviously hurt," she said. "Well, no, no, and no. Nothing could be further from the truth."

When asked whether she and Kutcher found any youth-sports best practices when it came to the prevention of concussions, Gerstner cautioned that while policies can provide a strong framework, "usually the devil lies in the execution." Instead, she urged "a thoughtful, basic conversation with every part of the sports ecosystem, from school administration to teachers."

"I mean, teachers play a huge role in that if a student is concussed, I'm talking about maybe a high school student, they might really struggle in school," she added. "They might be photosensitive, they might have a migraine headache, they might not be sleeping right. So if they are forced to go back to school when they're not ready, early in the healing process, they might not perform well."

Gerstner believes the media also has a role to play when it comes to quelling certain fears about sports-related concussions. Rather than focusing exclusively on splashy findings about the potential long-term risks of sports-related head trauma, she suggested telling stories from athletes who have suffered concussions and have returned to play with no significant ramifications.

"The media is a very powerful reflection of society. We can shape society by what we write and what we produce," she said. "...I think looking at not just the minority subset of those that suffer serious post-concussive issues, but really look at the whole thing as a whole. What we're supposed to do as journalists is tell the whole story and reflect all sides, not just pick a team and drive it through."

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