Hundreds of Milwaukee-area kids have begun working out for upcoming fall sports. Their arrival may delight parents, but also heighten fears about potential concussions.
Head injuries are on the rise among children and adolescents, and researchers in Milwaukee are on the front lines of addressing the problem.
One recent patient at a Children’s Hospital clinic is Vince Segura, a soft-spoken, 13 year old who does well in school and loves sports. His favorite is basketball, and it wasn’t harmful until a recent pick-up game.
“When I was playing basketball with my brother, he fell on me and I hit my head on a brick wall. They said I blacked out. It didn’t hurt really bad until I got to the house,” Vince says.
Vince had a headache. A few days later, it was worse, and his dad, Victor, says his son’s balance and coordination was off.
“I told him to come on downstairs, wake up, come and eat breakfast. I went downstairs, started preparing the stuff and as he got out the bed I heard a big crash and he fell out the bed,” says Segura.
Victor rushed his son to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and referred to Dr. Kevin Walter.
At a follow-up visit a month after the injury, Walter asks Vince to open his eyes, close them and puff out his cheeks. He notices the boy’s eyes aren’t yet tracking normally.
“I’m not terrified where you’re at," Walter tells Vince. "But I think if we can fine tune a few things, you will get significantly better."
Walter tells Vince he can no longer sleep from midnight to noon and then nap between. Too much sleep is bad, just like too little sleep. Vince also must limit his physical activity and screen time, and read for 30 minutes a day.
“You’ve got to make these changes. And if you don’t do it, then you don’t get better. If you don’t get better, this is not an ankle sprain where at 90 percent, I’m clapping and saying go for it, you’re out of here, this is your brain and it’s got to be 100 percent,” Walter says.
Walter says with the right mix of rest and activity, most adolescents recover in a few weeks and have no lasting impacts.
“Families get scared because they see what happens to these old ex-professional players and think, Oh my gosh, is this the road my child is on with their concussions? And the answer is, for the most part, absolutely not,” says Walter, who directs the Pediatric and Adolescent Sports Medicine program at Children’s Hospital, and is co-author of a book on youth sports injuries.
He thinks a few factors are driving the increase in concussions, including that kids are getting bigger, stronger and faster, leading to more powerful collisions. And, young people are playing more sports, at a higher level, and not giving their bodies proper rest.
“Thankfully a lot of kids are active with sports because of the life lessons and fitness that sports can help teach you and help you with. The downside is with overspecialization and overscheduling, where I’ll see kids that do basketball, soccer and baseball all in the same season, these kids wear down and they start to get a lot of injuries,” Walter says.
Walter is conducting research on why some kids take longer to recover than others. And his colleagues at the Medical College of Wisconsin will lead a $30 million federal study on head injuries among young athletes.
While that research may not yield results for years, he offers recommendations for today. For one, he says the focus should be less on playing tons of games, and more on practice and developing skills. Second, he says coaches and parents need to encourage athletes to report their injuries and take time off to recover, even if they think they’re fine.
“Cause we hear lots of stories about kids that try and play through injuries, whether it be concussion or musculoskeleal, because they don’t want to lose their place on the team,” Walter says.
Victor Segura understands that drive to play. His 13-year-old son Vince is itching to shoot hoops again, a month after his concussion.
“You can’t just, I guess, keep him wrapped up and not let nothing happen to him so it’s kind of like, you know, take the most precautions you can and hope for the best,” says Segura.
It could be a tough year for dad on the sidelines. Vince is set to join the 8th grade football team this fall.