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Congress urges attention to youth concussions

/ Source: The Associated Press

Young people who suffer concussions are at greater risk of long-term physical and mental consequences, lawmakers were told Thursday at a hearing on head injuries to high school athletes.

Michelle Pelton, a former high school basketball and softball player from Swansea, Mass., related to the House Education and Labor Committee how her life had been affected by the five concussions she had sustained.

"Every day I endure memory loss, lack of concentration, depression, slow processing speed and cognitive effects that make my everyday life a battle," said Pelton, now 19.

Last October the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on head injuries in football, but the focus there was on life-altering injuries to professional football players.

"It was clear to us that if the NFL was paying attention to concussions at the professional level, we should be doing the same at the high school level," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the education committee.

Miller said high school athletes are at greater risk from sports-related concussions than older athletes because their younger brains are more susceptible to injury.

The Government Accountability Office, which does investigative work for Congress, issued a report finding that it's difficult to determine how many concussions occur at the high school level and that estimates may be too low. Athletes not wanting to be sidelined may be reluctant to report symptoms of a possible concussion and agencies that track head injuries have different standards such as only counting injuries treated in an emergency room.

A law in Texas, one of the few states with statutes regarding concussions in high school sports, applies return-to-play requirements specifically to athletes who lose consciousness.

James Schmutz, head of American Sport Education Program, which provides coach education for youth sport, cited a 2009 report that put the number of concussions among high school athletes in nine sports at almost 400,000 in the 2005-2008 period.

"Moreover, the study discovered a disturbing disregard for the seriousness of the injury, with athletes often returning to practice and competition before it was safe and appropriate for them to do so," he said.

Concussions are caused by a blow that forces the head to move rapidly back and forth. Concussions can affect memory, judgment, reflexes, speech, balance and muscle coordination, but some people do not suffer symptoms until days after the accident occurs.

The chances of long-term consequences increase with a repeat concussion.

Washington state last year passed what is considered the nation's strongest return-to-play statute. Athletes under 18 who show symptoms can't take the field again without a licensed health care provider's written approval.