If you are the parent of a school-aged child who plays sports, you’ve probably been affected by concussion in some way. Your child may have had one, or perhaps one of his or her friends. The school might have had you sign a form about concussions or given a presentation about how to identify the signs and symptoms and what to do if you’re concerned your child may have been injured. You may have also noticed changes in how games or practices are run, or what kind of headgear the kids are wearing. This attention to concussion is the result of local activism but also of concerned legislators, and I’m happy that US Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia recently made it a nationwide issue by introducing a concussion safety bill in the Senate.
The history of legislative approaches to the problem of youth concussion really began with the unfortunate circumstances of a young man named Zack Lystedt and the work of an attorney named Richard Adler. In 2006, then 13-year old Lystedt suffered repeat concussions while playing junior high school football, leaving him permanently disabled. Adler supported Zack and his family through his recovery and went on to draft legislation designed to protect youth athletes. On May 16, 2009, the Lystedt Law was passed in Washington State, requiring that athletes under the age of 18 who are suspected of having sustained a concussion are removed from play and not allowed to return until cleared by a medical professional. The law also mandates concussion education for athletes, parents, and coaches. A majority of states have adopted similar guidelines, and we have seen a major shift in how these injuries are understood, recognized, and managed.
Lystedt and Adler have made an enormous impact on youth sports, and no doubt saved lives. But there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, especially in educating the public about the different aspects of concussion safety, including prevention. Last month Senator Rockefeller introduced the Youth Sports Concussion Act, which mandates universal safety standards for helmets and clamps down on companies making deceptive claims about their products. As a clinician, one of the most common questions I get from parents is about some new helmet that claims to be “concussion-proof.” My response is generally the same: Show me the data! In the midst of this concussion craze, some companies are exploiting the fears of parents in an effort to sell products that may actually give a false sense of security and put kids in more danger. Senator Rockefeller’s bill is a timely and essential step towards cementing the legacy of Zack and Richard and, ultimately, keeping kids safe as they play the games they love.
Michael Rosenthal, PhD, is a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in the evaluation and treatment of children and adolescents from pre-school through early adulthood, particularly when complex questions exist about autism spectrum disorders and concussion or mild traumatic brain injury.