Northwestern Medicine Shares Firm Message About Concussions and Sports: ‘Play It Safe’

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research and a new Illinois law that protects student athletes.

Hosted by Northwestern Medicine™, in partnership with the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), the symposium, “Playing it Safe: Changing the Mindset Around Concussion Safety in Sports,” emphasized the public health crisis surrounding concussions — a form of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head.

“Sports are the second leading cause of brain injury among 15 to 24 year olds and account for 3.8 million concussions per year,” said Hunt Batjer, MD, Michael J. Marchese Professor of Neurosurgery and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery. “These days, athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger. We want youth to participate in sports, but we need to make them safer. We must spread the message that medical decisions always trump competitive ones. You play through the pain, but you don’t play through a brain injury.”

As co-chair of the National Football League (NFL) Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee, Batjer is highly invested in advancing research, education, prevention, and treatment related to head and spine injuries in sports. He sat alongside colleagues from Northwestern, as well as former players and industry experts, to share the latest information surrounding concussions. Here’s a closer look at each panel:

Panel 1: Why Concussions Can’t Be Taken Lightly

Moderated by David Kaplan, radio and television host at Comcast SportsNet, the first panel provided an overview on the significance of brain rest following a concussion and explored who makes the final decision concerning return to play. The speakers included:

“At Northwestern, a third-party neuropsychologist has to give the clear to play,” said Jaworski, also director of intercollegiate sports medicine and head team physician for Northwestern University. “You can’t be too careful with this type of injury; always err on the side of caution.”

Panel 2: Safe Play and Recognizing Signs of a Concussion

The second panel, moderated by David Haugh, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, stressed the value of getting to know students so that their behavioral changes (a sign of concussion) are more easily detected. The speakers included:

  • Adam Bennett, MD, assistant clinical professor of family and community medicine (presentation )
  • Kurt Becker, a former player for the Chicago Bears and assistant coach at Marmion Academy in Aurora, Ill.
  • Sara Edwards, MD, assistant professor in orthopaedic surgery
  • Tory Lindley, MA, ATC, head athletic trainer at Northwestern University

“It is important to talk to teachers who know a student’s normal affect in the classroom. They may notice subtle differences that could signal a concussion, like a change in the student from extrovert to introvert,” said Lindley.

Panel 3: Concussion Safety Now the Law in Illinois

Concussion panel
Attendees heard from three groups of panelist regarding different aspects of concussion safety. This panel covered the legal responsibilities of school officials. (L to R) Daniel Derman, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine; Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and development at Riddel, Inc.; Kurt Gibson, assistant executive director of the IHSA; and Amy Mayber, JD, associate general counsel at Northwestern University.

Moderated by Pat Boyle, a sports broadcaster at Comcast SportsNet, the third panel reviewed new legislation that requires each school board in Illinois to adopt a concussion policy that complies with IHSA guidelines — rules that prevent students who are removed from a game or practice due to a possible head injury from returning without being evaluated and cleared by a licensed health professional. The speakers included:

  • Daniel Derman, MD, assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine, vice president of operations for NMH, and president of Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group
  • Kurt Gibson, assistant executive director of the IHSA
  • Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and product development at Riddell, Inc., a sports equipment company
  • Amy Mayber, JD, associate general counsel at Northwestern University

“Players and coaches will enter fall sports with a new set of guidelines,” said Mayber. “If caught breaking the new rules, schools can lose their tax exempt status.”

Added Gibson: “We need to create a culture where students feel comfortable speaking up when injured. We need to teach them to balance the art of playing tough and playing smart.”

Following the panel sessions, Dan Hampton, a former defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, offered the keynote address . Like many of the panelists, Hampton noted the prevalence of concussion injury and the necessity for shifting the culture of the game.

Dan Hampton
Keynote speker Dan Hampton, former defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, talked about his experiences in the NFL and the need to change the culture of the game.

“We need to teach young people that helmet-to-helmet contact, for example, will not be tolerated at the professional or college levels, so there is no reason to engage in it at the high school level,” Hampton said. “Now, everyone is aware of the long-term effects of concussions; the overarching pressure from teammates and coaches to return to play must disappear.”

Attendee Jon Empen, athletic director at Dixon High School, came to hear from Hampton and others about concussions safety — a big issue, he says, among his male and female student athletes. As a result of the symposium, he learned how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion and how to react after a concussion has occurred.

“I want to ensure that our student athletes are safe and have a great experience participating in high school sports,” Empen said. “It is my job to protect the health of these youth for the future.”

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