Anyone who follows sports has likely heard about concussions. From the National Football League to youth soccer on Saturday, safety rules are evolving as we learn more about the long-term consequences of head injuries.
Collisions that cause concussions are not unusual in many sports, and they are particularly concerning in youth sports, because the bodies and minds of young athletes are still developing.
However, for all the attention paid to the danger, many people still do not know what concussions are, or how they affect us.
A concussion is a disturbance in the brain caused by strong force, direct or indirect, applied to the head. People often equate this injury to getting "knocked out," but most of the time a concussion does not involve loss of consciousness.
People with concussions often feel foggy or fuzzy. Common symptoms include headache, vision problems, unsteadiness or nausea. This condition also affects brain function, causing slowed reaction times or confusion.
Abnormal behavior can follow, such as abrupt changes in personality or disrupted sleep patterns.
Parents and coaches are well positioned to notice such symptoms, and should contact a health care provider if they do. Do not assume a young athlete is fine because they say so. It's also important to realize that you may not know about every hard collision unless you witness every practice and game.
The good news is that 80 to 90 percent of concussions heal within seven to 10 days. But it is important for a medical professional to evaluate anyone experiencing symptoms because, occasionally, severe concussions last longer and have dangerous or even fatal outcomes.
Proper treatment involves mental and physical rest, meaning no video games, television, texting, going out or doing much of anything until all symptoms go away. After that, the patient can gradually increase mental and physical activity, as long as the symptoms don't come back.
But the new information about concussions -- the part making headlines -- has to do with what happens long after a concussion heals.
A growing body of research shows that repeated concussions can potentially lead to a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has many of the same symptoms as dementia and can lead to confusion, memory loss and depression, generally appearing many years after the injuries.
Concussions may also be linked to ALS, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. We cannot predict if or when an individual will get these conditions, or how many concussions are "too many."
California enacted a new law that takes effect Jan. 1, 2015, in all state middle and high schools to address this concern.
The law requires schools to immediately remove student-athletes from play or practice if they appear to have received a concussion or other head injury, and they may not return until cleared by a health care professional.
The law also includes some additional safety requirements, including limits on the number of full-contact football practices in a week.
Sports play an important role in many young people's lives and we all play a role in safety. As a family doctor, I know that dedicated student-athletes want to play as much as possible. Concussions are perceived as inconveniences to them, not reasons to sit out a week.
A parent may feel pressure not to deprive their teen of that cherished experience. But it's important to approach your child's athletic career with open eyes and a clear mind.
Remember, you want to protect them for a lifetime, not just this season.
Dr. Yasul is a family medicine physician at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez. Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.