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Former wrestler addresses head injuries

Some damage is preventable, he says

November 2, 2010
By JAMIE CURTIS, The Leader-Herald

AMSTERDAM-Christopher Nowinski was a World Wrestling Entertainment champion, but when his career ended in 2003 from a head injury, it was an opportunity to begin researching concussions and spread a message of prevention to other athletes.

In front of an auditorium of parents, coaches, athletes and medical professionals at Amsterdam High School on Monday, he issued a warning about the long-term effects of concussions, while stressing that much of the damage can be avoided if athletes had the chance to heal from their injuries.

"If the damage is partially preventable, how can we not tell athletes how to protect themselves?" Nowinski asked.

Article Photos

Christopher Nowinski, a former wrestler, speaks to athletes, families, coaches and medical professionals about the dangers of head injuries and their long-term effects.

The Leader-Herald/Jamie Curtis

Nowinski, a Harvard graduate, co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute and specializes in research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a repetitive trauma from multiple concussions that triggers progressive degeneration of brain tissue. Changes in the brain can begin months, or even years, after a victim's last concussion. He wrote "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis," a book that examined the long-term effects of head trauma among athletes.

"I wrote 'Head Games' to warn others," he said.

Symptoms can include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia, he said,

Only 45 cases were founded in medical literature in 2007, he said, and laws for mandatory concussion education has been slow to come.

The American Academy of Neurology said Monday the risk of concussions from football and some other sports is so serious that a qualified athletic trainer should always be on the field - at adult and children's games, and even at practice.

The doctors group also said no athlete with concussion symptoms should be allowed to take part in sports, and that athletes of all ages who are suspected of suffering concussions should be evaluated by a specialist before returning to sports.

The group recognizes it isn't necessarily feasible. One official called it a gold standard to strive for.

"We understand completely that is undoable in today's environment, but we think that is a correct way to organize our priorities," said Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, chair of the academy's sports neurology section. He said that if a certified athletic trainer is not available to a school, perhaps contact sports should be avoided.

Medical groups want to get the message "to the athletes, their parents and their coaches that a concussion is not just a ding, or getting your bell rung, but it is an injury to the brain," said Dr. Mark Halstead of Washington University, who co-authored an earlier concussion report for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Carla Pasquarelli, an athletic trainer at St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam, which organized Monday's program, said the group noticed a disturbing trend with parents, coaches and athletes and their disregard for the seriousness of head injuries. "When you sprain your ankle, you can tape it up and go back into the game," she said. "You can't tape up your brain with a concussion. The only way to let it heal is rest."

Amsterdam Athletic Director Ron Smith said his school is aiming to get $1,200 to fund baseline testing, which would examine an athlete's memory and thought sequences.

"The presentation was more from a football standpoint, but it came across other sports," said Paul Lindsay, an Amsterdam youth softball coach whose daughter plays scholastic sports. He said he appreciated "concrete information on how to deal with head injuries and how to talk to kids in a way they truly understand. Not just, 'are you OK?'"

Jamie Curtis can be reached at ruralnews@leaderherald .com. Information from The Associated Press was included in this story.



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