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Knocked Out

When does a hit become one hit too many? New concussion research shows that head injuries sustained by young athletes have more serious long-term consequences than once thought.

Knocked Out
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 3)

The first concussion occurred eight years ago, when Matt Hovila was a fourth grader playing in a youth football league in Bloomington.

The 10-year-old running back was dashing down the field with the ball (and his helmet strapped firmly in place) when “a guy picked me up and slammed me down,” he recalls. “I landed on the back of my head.”

Dizzy and confused, Matt sat out the rest of the game. Afterward, his parents took him to a hospital, where he had a brain scan. His skull looked undamaged, and the doctors gave Matt the OK to return to football.

The second concussion came two weeks later, when he landed on the back of his head after being tackled. This time, he experienced headaches. And this time, the doctors and his parents told him he couldn’t play football anymore. It was an emotional blow to an athletic kid who loved the game and was good at it. But Matt accepted the decision—and switched to basketball.

The third concussion occurred two years later, while he was playing in a school traveling league. He took a charge from another player and fell backward, hitting his head on the hardwood floor. He lay unconscious for a few seconds and needed help walking back to the bench. “And I had a pretty bad headache,” he recalls.

After a few weeks’ rest, Matt returned to play. Then, late in the season, while jumping for a ball, he banged heads with an opposing player. “It wasn’t a hard hit, but it was so close to the first one,” he says.

Matt and his parents aren’t sure if that was a concussion, but, looking back, they see it as a turning point in his young life. “It’s when all my school problems started,” Matt says. “Before, I was an A student who could do anything in school. But then I became a whole different person.”

He found it difficult to focus and pay attention. He fatigued easily, and was frequently irritable. Reading became a frustrating challenge—until doctors discovered that Matt’s latest concussion had altered his vision. But even a new eyeglass prescription didn’t improve things at school. In fact, Matt’s symptoms, including severe headaches, got so bad he had to be home-schooled for three months in seventh grade.

“I went from taking advanced-placement classes to special ed,” he says.

Matt’s story is not uncommon in Minnesota. Each year, roughly 1,000 children and teenagers ages 5 to 18 go to the hospital for sports-related concussions, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. But that number is probably 10 times higher, say officials, because most concussions go unrecognized by kids and their families.

Precise statistics about Minnesota’s youth-related sports concussions are hard to come by because there’s no good data-tracking system in place. National research suggests, however, that such concussions have been steadily rising—and in many sports. One recent study, for example, found that traumatic brain injuries among kids playing basketball climbed 70 percent between 1997 and 2007.

This fall, Minnesota may see a slight spike in the number of concussions reported. A new law signed by Governor Mark Dayton in May will send more youngsters to emergency rooms for evaluation after sports mishaps.

Or, instead, counts could go down, now that USA Hockey, the group that governs amateur hockey, has implemented new body-checking rules explicitly designed to minimize head injuries.

But however the numbers turn out, one thing is clear: kids are playing sports with a whole different mindset.

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