Fort Worth, Texas,
09:59 AM

Two concussions and you're out

Why not to argue with a neurosurgeon – your child and concussions

A federal judge in a class-action NFL concussion lawsuit approved a plan that could pay thousands of players more than $1 billion over the next 65 years.

Richard Roberts, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Cook Children’s, wonders what it’s worth for your child to play sports with a reputation for head trauma.

“I think the fact that when the NFL players sued the league initially and won, the judge said the settlement (more than $700 million) wasn’t big enough,” Dr. Roberts said. “That says a lot about this growing issue more so than anything else.”

The issue discussed in the NFL cases has been CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a progressive, degenerative brain disease that has been found in some athletes with repetitive brain trauma.

Research is currently being done to study just how playing contact sports such as football mainly, but also soccer, can cause damage to an athlete’s head. But is it worth it for parents to wait for the results of this work.

“Amateur sports are different than professional sports because no one is feeding their family with the activity that they are doing,” Dr. Roberts said. We need to look beyond the short term and really understand what could happen in the long term. That potential for long term problems should be the primary thought, not the secondary thought.

“What is the actual incidence? We don’t know. But if it was your kid, how much would you be willing to risk? Even if it was 1 in 10, would you roll the dice on your own kid?”

Dr. Roberts has previously worked at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and Charity Hospital in New Orleans. While he saw concussions at the other hospitals, he’s never seen parents argue with him about concussions as he has seen at Cook Children’s.

“Part of what I’ve seen which is different here than other places is that I do get push back from parents who I think underestimate the severity of some of these injuries,” Dr. Roberts said. “Some of it is that they want their kids to play and I think some of it is the short term nature of some concussions.”

Children get concussions and they do well relatively quick, so opposed to having a broken arm which is in a cast or needing surgery and having stitches for three weeks, kids hurt their heads, they are knocked unconscious for five minutes, but then feel essentially better soon after. This apparent sign of improvement makes it difficult for some parents to grasp that their child may have a fairly significant brain injury.

“The more we understand concussions and the more we see people who have hurt their heads for various reasons, soldiers, professional athletes, anyone who has suffered a head injury, I think that we are seeing that in adulthood they are starting to have more cognitive issues,” Dr. Roberts said. “Now the science is not perfect yet. We can’t say to a football player you had three concussions and that’s why you have dementia. We can’t say to the soldier you were exposed to be a bomb blast and that’s why you have dementia because it could be multifactorial. It could be that you have the right genes to make you this way later on. But the percentage seems higher in people who have had traumatic brain injuries.”

Dr. Roberts says parents should be concerned after head injury one. He knows you have to let kids live their lives and be kids, but the brain wasn’t made to get beat up like happens sometimes in sports.

It’s not known for sure that after one concussion, people are more likely to get more, but Dr. Roberts’ suspicion is that it is likely the case.

And when does he have a serious heart-to-heart with the parents and the athlete?

“After two. We discuss no longer participating in the activities which could cause further injury because the likelihood of you having a head injury in your lifetime is still pretty high,” Dr. Robert said. “You are going to hit your head on a tree branch or you are going to fall off your bicycle or someone is going to run into you. You are going to be stepping out of the car and slip or walking across ice and fall down. My opinion after behavior has shown us that you are going to get injuries in a particular sport, you should probably not be playing in that sport because you are not able to protect your head.”

Dr. Roberts has seen strong reactions from both the parents and the kids after being told he or she should quit playing their respective sport. And it’s not just football as most people expect. It’s with the gymnast who has fallen off the bars and knocked herself out or the soccer player who has headed the ball and gotten knocked unconscious.

But football still remains king in Texas – in popularity and in concussions.

So what can be done about it?

Dr. Roberts is not sure there’s a good answer to that question. Building better equipment helps, but then armoring players probably makes them feel invincible and they hit harder. If you take away the facemasks or hard shell football helmets, he expects you will return to the old days – less concussions, but more skull fractures and in the process, immediate deaths on the playing field.

For now, Dr. Roberts wants parents to monitor their kids closely and to take the recommendations from their doctor closely. If they say it’s time to stop – stop!

“All the steps that sports are taking to make it safer are positive,” he said. “I think that everybody involved has to think less about return to play and more about long term health.”

About the source

Richard Roberts, M.D., is a neurosurgeon at Cook Children's. When a child with a neurological disorder requires surgery, the experts at Cook Children's Medical Center offer comprehensive care and state-of-the-art technology. With the help of such state-of-the-art equipment as the revolutionary intraoperative MRI (iMRI), our neurosurgeons are able to determine effectiveness of surgical procedures for cranial and spinal nerve disorders and tailor the treatment to each child's unique needs.

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