Vicki Galliher, an athletic trainer of 29 years, the past nine at George Mason High School, gave a presentation called, “Anatomy of an Adolescent Concussion: It’s Not Child’s Play” Feb. 22 at the school.
About 1.7 million people go to the emergency room every year for concussion-related brain injuries. Around half of those concussed are children between the ages of 8 and 14. In her presentation, Galliher shared these statistics and discussed the dangers of concussion injuries for school athletes that both parents and children should be aware of. She stresses that a concussion doesn’t have to result from a direct head contact; it can occur from whiplash motions similar to those experienced in car accidents.
“The head trauma sends the brain cells into a metabolic crisis,” Galliher said in an interview with the News-Press. “The brain nerves are stretched and twisted and when that happens, you have potassium rushing out and calcium rushing in. Passages become clogged and it diminishes the ability of oxygen and blood to get in and out of those cells. You can have damage to those cells very quickly resulting in cell death.”
She went on to say that this is especially a concern for youth because the brain in children is still developing and more inclined to damage. Furthermore, concussion injuries in adolescent athletes are often misdiagnosed because physical symptoms can take longer to surface in young people than adults. Common symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory loss or difficulty with balance, but these symptoms may take up to four weeks to present in adolescents.
Galliher’s presentation last Wednesday included her discussion of what happens to the brain when a concussion occurs and the effects of concussion injuries on developing adolescents. A PowerPoint presentation accompanied her lecture, followed by a few questions from the audience. A freshman at George Mason, his mother, and the coach of George Mason’s club ice hockey team, whose son experienced a concussion, all shared their personal concussion experiences at the end of the discussion.
One Falls Church mother, who asked to remain anonymous, shared her daughter’s concussion recovery story with the News-Press. She said that her daughter began experiencing headaches after a particularly rough soccer tournament last year, but the middle schooler never experienced a head-on collision. The absence of any obvious head impact led her neurologists and pediatrician to quickly move to headache treatments and testing for various diseases, which delayed concussion treatment.
“It is really up to us, as parents, to be knowledgeable and vigilant,” she said. “We have to push and prod physicians – ask all the ‘could-it-be’ questions. [The recovery] is hard, the most difficult thing we have ever been through. Every morning I wake up hoping she will come down without bags under her eyes or without her headache.”
She said her daughter can no longer read, use the computer, play musical instruments or exercise without the activity aggravating her headache. Her daughter has been absent from school for months because of what they now believe is an undiagnosed concussion. The exact cause of the adolescent’s trauma is unknown, but may have occurred from sudden stopping and accelerating game-play motion, an impact to her shoulder that transmitted up to the brain or from a series of insults sustained during the tournament.
Galliher told the News-Press that her research is showing that if an athlete heads a soccer ball between 1,000 and 1,500 times per year, the injury to brain tissue results in damage similar to the early stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in children 14 to 17 years old. The cumulative headbutt number may appear high, but many athletes play for two to three teams a year, increasing their number of headbutts and their risk.
“Parents, especially of middle [school] age students, should understand the potential harm and cumulative effects of head injuries and contact. The younger the child, the more significant the day-in and day-out subconcussive impacts that kids at the middle school level are enduring,” Galliher said.
Another woman who shared her experience with the News-Press said that she and her son were required to watch a video on concussions before he could try out for a contact sport. Even with that background knowledge, it was a few weeks before she realized her son sustained a concussion from wrestling with a friend because his symptoms were initially minor.
“Our son has said, many times, that he wishes he could have been put in the hospital and kept immobile and at ‘cognitive rest’ because it is so hard to be at home or at school and try to follow the guidelines of not being active, not overtaxing the brain,” she said, adding that she is concerned about the significant toll the concussion is taking on her son at an academic, physical and social level.
A number of parents contacted the News-Press to share their child’s experience with concussion injuries. Common among their shared experiences were that adolescents with concussions often experience trouble relaxing because many everyday leisure activities, like reading, video games, and television, are off-limits due to their ability to aggravate concussion symptoms. Academic settings are also a challenge for many concussed adolescents because so much modern technology is incorporated into classroom settings. Items such as computer screens, projectors, and PowerPoint slides with moving clips can overload an individual’s brain while recovering. Homework and test taking also becomes difficult because reading often evokes concussion-related headaches.
“I’m not proposing that kids shouldn’t be active and play sports, but the younger the kid is, the more you should think about the risk involved with experiencing an injury,” Galliher told the News-Press. “If you can delay sports into the high school years or beyond, you have a better chance of not seeing that early damage.”
Galliher said the response she received from her presentation was positive. She said there is talk of developing support groups for both parents of recovering children and concussed adolescents who sometime struggle emotionally with recovery and teasing from peers. She believes that the audience learned a lot on adolescent concussions and that the significance of brain injuries was received well by the Falls Church community.
A video of Galliher’s concussion forum can be found at fccps.org/fcctvj.