Ahead of the game | Protecting young athletes from head injuries

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - While it is an issue under the microscope when it comes to the NFL, concussions are not just a concern for the sport of football - and not just for professional athletes.

The NFL reported a 58 percent increase in the number of concussions this past season. It comes as more former players are diagnosed with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a degenerative brain disease that can lead to erratic behavior and depression, and that some researchers link to repeated head trauma.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control reports more than 170,000 children are treated in emergency rooms each year for sports- or recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions. Their statistics also note a dramatic increase in those numbers over the past decade, and in younger ages.

Seaman High School junior Ethan Sparks has been through it twice. First, in soccer practice, when he and a teammate collided, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the ground. The following basketball season, he and a teammate went up for a rebound and an elbow hit Sparks in the nose, breaking his nose and causing another concussion.

Each time, Sparks knew something was wrong, and it took more than a month for him to fully recover.

"I had trouble sleeping, I had headaches, sensitivity to light and noise," Sparks said, adding he couldn't even read for more than five minutes without his head hurting. "You have to go through a lot of processes before they let you play again."

Athletic trainer Michael Longhofer, who is assigned to Seaman through a partnership with Cotton-O'Neil Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, says that's the way it should be.

"If the brain is not allowed to recuperate, then permanent damages can occur," he said.

Longhofer says schools have stepped up their game when it comes to head injuries. All seven Topeka city high schools have trainers, five of them on a full-time basis. He says Cotton-O'Neil does outreach with 30 more outlying schools.

One way they focus on the head is with computer-based neurocognitive tests. They take athletes through exercises testing reaction time, short and long term memory, and hand/eye coordination. Results during recovery are compared to an athlete's own baseline test, if one was done before the season, or a norm.

"It's a way to test the athlete without relying on what they're reporting," Longhofer said. "You have athletes that don't want to miss playing so they may hide their symptoms or downplay their symptoms."

When that happens, it can have deadly consequences. Of immediate concern, Longhofer says, is second impact syndrome, where a still-injured brain takes another blow, leading to immediate, often-fatal brain swelling. Long-term is CTE. It has made headlines recently for the movie "Concussion," profiling the doctor who linked the degenerative brain disease to repeated blows to the head, and for its diagnosis in several former NFL players, including New York Giant Tyler Sash, just 27-years old when he died last fall of an accidental painkiller overdose.

Part of the trouble, Longhofer says, is there's no magic prescription for how long it will take the brain to heal.

"Every athlete is different, every injury is different," he said.

In 2011, Kansas enacted a law requiring middle and high school student athletes who suffer a head injury be immediately removed from practice or competition, and receive written medical clearance to return. It's not known how often the law has been called upon because schools are not required to report concussions to the state. The law also does not cover non-school clubs or leagues.

Sparks admits it's tough. Like most athletes, he wants to get right in the game. However, he knows first hand time on the sideline now will keep him in the game for a lifetime.

"Don't try to tough it out. You may think it's just a headache or I just can't sleep, it will go away," he said. "Take the recovery time that you're supposed to. Don't rush in too quickly or things can get worse."

Cotton-O'Neil is developing a concussion clinic, so those who do not have it provided through school may access concussion-specific care and evaluation.