It is summer time and school is out. Many children are engaged in summer activities such as swimming, water skiing and diving. Others are preparing for next year’s football season and cheerleaders are preparing too. While we use to assume these activities were safe, we now know they can be dangerous.
Many parents of high school athletes are aware of the dangers of concussions. Even one concussion can cause permanent damage according to recent research studies. However, there is another condition that parents need to be aware of when their child plays sports. This disorder is CTE. CTE is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) it is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.
Our brain sits in our skull surrounded by fluid. Therefore, any time anyone hits their head or their head is jarred around, the brain moves in this fluid hitting the front and back of your skull or the sides of the skull depending on what direction the force came from. When the brain hits the skull it can cause bruising and microscopic tears of very fine nerve fibers. Nerve fibers that are too small to be seen on an MRI or a CT scan.
Physicians have known that CTE effects boxers for many years, however, it was just recently that evidence showed that football players are at risk too. This was the main focus of the movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith. The NFL did everything they could to stop the filming of this movie. The movie shows how CTE results in the patient becoming severely depressed and psychotic. Many of the patients with CTE commit suicide. Also many CTE patients were football players.
Why is this important for parents to know? It is important because CTE is caused by chronic head injuries. Head injuries that date back to when a teenager was playing high school sports. Therefore, it is important for parents to ensure that their teenager’s school is using the latest safety gear, especially for the head, and to take any head injuries seriously. There is no way to tell what will happen when these teenagers become adults.
For many years, football and schools have reported that they are developing helmets that protect the head better. However, these safer helmets are not being used in high schools or professional football. Schools and professional football are monitoring players closer after a head injury, but still little to nothing is being done to protect the brain prior to an injury.
As an adolescent psychotherapist who has been practicing for 20 years, I am seeing more evidence of this every year. Every year I am seeing more teens with Post Concussion Syndrome. This may occur after a concussion and can be associated with headaches, mood swings and memory difficulties. The teenagers who experiences this Syndrome become very frustrated because they are aware of the changes and because no one can say how long the symptoms will continue. In fact, no one can guarantee that the symptoms will disappear.
This becomes very frustrating to the teenager and their parents. Some teenagers are so overwhelmed that they start self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Anything that they think might help. Others become so depressed because they fear that the symptoms are permanent that they become suicidal and may attempt suicide.
For many years these head injuries in teenagers were down played because there was not enough evidence to indicate that teenagers could be impacted by head injuries. Well the research clearly indicates that teenagers can suffer long term results from a single concussion. Additionally, this can create symptoms that are overwhelming for the teenager and their family. Imagine being a parent and you see your child suffering with Post Concussion Syndrome and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Parents also become depressed and nervous that their child may never recover.
Another issue to consider, in CTE, patients have mood swings and feel like they are going crazy. They do not understand what is happening inside their head. Many teenagers who act out often report the same feelings and the fear that they are going crazy. Many of these teenagers have had head injuries. It is possible that teenagers may also suffer from CTE?
Everyone’s brain is different and so is the recovery process. This means we have no way of knowing how many Concussions or head traumas it takes before CTE is started in someone. It also means we have no way to determine how long it will take for someone to recover from a concussion or if they will have permanent impairments. We only can tell after it occurs not before.
We do know that patients recovering from Post Concussion Syndrome or dealing with CTE can benefit from psychotherapy. Often this option is not given to teenagers because again many people believe teenagers are very unlikely to suffer with these issues. However, if you look at the research it indicates that teenagers can and do suffer from Post Concussion Syndrome and teenage head injuries can cause CTE.
As a psychotherapist who treats teenagers with head injuries, I strongly encourage every parent to watch the movie, Concussion. Also before your child starts playing any competitive sports, such as football or soccer, go online and research head injuries and signs and symptoms of concussions. Also if you teenager does sustain a head injury while playing sports or just playing have them evaluated. You never know how severe a head injury is by just looking at someone. A few years ago an actress fell in the snow and her friends said to go to the doctor she said she was fine. Two hours later she was dead. When she fell she caused her brain to bleed and she died.
Above all, use your best judgement as a parent. Do not be afraid to ask for a CT scan or an MRI if your child suffers any type of head injury. If your teenager does sustain a concussion and you notice a personality change or memory issues do not hesitate to seek psychotherapy for your child and for yourselves. Also don’t hesitate to talk to your teenagers high school. If the teenager is having problems concentrating after a head injury, the school may need to provide them with accommodations until the child recovers.
This can be an overwhelming and frightening topic to consider but the more you educate yourself, the easier it will be to manage. If you have additional questions regarding the personality changes or neuropsychological changes with head injuries, please feel free to contact me.
Dr. Michael Rubino has been treating children and teenagers for over 20 years. He also has training in neuropsychology. For more information about Dr. Rubino’s work or private practice visit his website at www.RubinoCounseling.com or his website that deals with accommodations at school www.LucasCenter.org.