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How are concussion risks being minimized on youth football fields?

youth-football-hit-MediumPlain Dealer columnist and WCPN host Mike McIntyre recently opened his morning show, The Sound of Ideas, asking listeners the highly debated question: 3.5 million kids younger than 14 play tackle football in this country, but what’s being done to make the sport as safe as it can be for them?

“Tackle football is a collision sport,” McInytre said. “The hits can be ferocious and the biggest potential injury might be one you can’t see: concussion. Scientific research is showing that repeated concussions in sports can lead to long-term consequences.”

Today, coaches, parents and league officials from pee wees to the pros are taking steps to minimize concussions and protect injured players.

McIntyre invited his guests and listeners to weigh in on the dangers of concussions and how risks are being minimized.

Dr. Joe Congeni

Dr. Joe Congeni

McIntyre brought in-studio to lead the discussion Dr. Joe Congeni, medical director of Akron Children’s Hospital’s Sports Medicine Center; Brad Morgan, athletic trainer at Lake Health and Perry Public Schools; John Prochaska, Great Lakes Football League president and Mayfield Wildcats coach; 12-year-old quarterback for Mayfield Wildcats Sam Prochaska; and 11-year-old running back for Mayfield Wildcats Dylan Himmal.

Dr. Congeni began the discussion.

“The biggest thing in the last couple of decades is we’re a lot more sensitive … trying to identify concussion, and there’s no question that in the last 10 years there’s been a significant increase,” he said.

It’s surprising to many because equipment continues to get better and helmets are much more complex today to offer added protection. However, Dr. Congeni pointed to recent studies revealing that even with the newest technology in headgear, it’s not necessarily a preventative measure.

“Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to overcome the simple anatomy of the brain inside the skull, basically floating in cerebral spinal fluid,” Morgan chimed in. “The best analogy … is the raw egg. You can take and put tons of padding on the outside of an egg, but when you shake that egg or slam it against the wall, you might protect the shell from breaking, but the yolk inside the egg still becomes a scrambled egg.”

Dr. Congeni said it doesn’t have to be a helmet-to-helmet hit either.

“A lot of indirect concussions occur now where the rapid whiplash-type mechanism or snapback-type mechanism even of a body shot causes significant injury to the brain cells,” he said.

“If you’re going to play American football, you have to learn how to take a blow and deliver a blow. That’s part of what we have to teach young people with this sport.” – Dr. Joe Congeni

Because concussions are difficult to diagnose — some can’t even be seen on medical tests, such as a CT scan — Ohio laws are adapting and coaches are being trained to better detect a brain injury on the field.

“There is a law in Ohio that all of us have to be certified and ready to be able to check the children out when they’re on the field if there is a possible head injury,” said Coach Prochaska.

Earlier this year, one of his players, Himmal, suffered a concussion. While running the ball, a defensive player flipped him over and the back of his head hit the turf.

“As soon as he said he had a headache, we knew at that point he was coming out and we were going to do more evaluation,” said Coach Prochaska. “From there, you have to go to a doctor and be evaluated, then to come back you have to be released from a doctor, per the law at this point.”

Athletic trainers and other medical professionals on the sidelines are required to ask a set of cognitive questions and conduct balance tests to determine whether the brain is working properly. They are looking for 22 possible brain injury symptoms.

But even with better detection and diagnosis, Dr. Congeni would like to see kids avoid concussions in the first place. He pointed to teaching proper tackling techniques and reducing hits during practice — especially straight-on and blind-sided hits.

“If you’re going to play American football, you have to learn how to take a blow and deliver a blow,” Dr. Congeni said. “That’s part of what we have to teach young people with this sport.”