There's no silver bullet for detecting concussions, nevermind preventing them.
Researchers have developed advanced technologies and concussion protocols, but many concussions still go undiagnosed. In fact, research shows we only identify 1 in 6 concussions.
This is significant because when athletes continue to play their sport with a concussion, they are playing with an invisible injury, which, if left unaddressed, can prevent them from playing their sport for good and lead to serious long-term health issues.
So where do we go from here? It turns out, our best chance of more accurately detecting concussions might be a method used over 100 years ago.
In 1905, Harvard University football coach Bill Reid documented the team's concussion protocol, which read as follows:
"In case any man in any game gets hurt by a hit on the head so that he does not realize what he is doing, his teammate should at once insist that time be called and that a doctor come onto the field to see what is the trouble."
It was a teammate's duty to report a potential head injury since the injured player might be incapable of taking himself out of the game or may not even realize he has an injury.
Over the years, this message was relegated to the history books. We prioritized toughness and playing at all costs. A player coming out of a game was considered weak.
And athletes suffered the consequences from this mindset. That's why the Concussion Legacy Foundation created Team Up Day, a movement that hopes to change this attitude and encourage teammates to report each other's concussions, just like Harvard did a century ago.
"Team Up Day came out of our effort to change the culture around reporting concussions," explains Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. "We are trying to teach athletes to team up and speak up to fight concussions."
Why Athletes Should Report a Teammate's Concussion
You can't count on a concussed athlete to take himself out of a game. They may attempt to hide their symptoms or may not even be aware they have a potential concussion. In fact, a recent study found that 55 percent of high school athletes fail to report concussion symptoms. Boys, in particular, are often afraid of appearing weak or angering their teammates or coach.
Put simply, a concussed athlete is not a reliable athlete.
But as a teammate, you are watching the game closely. You may notice your teammate stumble after a hard hit, or maybe he acted strangely on the sidelines. And you may be the only one who notices these symptoms.
"Your teammate might not be able to take himself out, but you might recognize that he may have a concussion," says Nowinski.
If you suspect a concussion, you must speak up and tell a coach, athletic trainer or doctor. Not only will you be doing your teammate a favor to protect his long-term health, but you will also be stopping him from making a mistake (due to his impaired brain function) that could influence the outcome of the game.
"A concussed athlete will make mistakes and hurt your ability to win," adds Nowinski.
Why Haven't We Been Doing This All Along?
Athletes are ultra-competitive and will try to play their sport if at all possible. But concussions aren't like other injuries. You don't feel pain. You just experience symptoms, which are sometimes minor and hard to notice.
"The brain can't send pain signals like the rest of your body can because you don't have those pain nerves in your brain," explains Nowinski.
Unfortunately, the lack of pain signaling within a culture of playing sports at all costs has allowed athletes to play with what could be serious head injuries.
"Throughout history, players have been playing through concussions because it seemed that it was OK to do at the time," Nowinski says. "We've realized that behavior has led to athletes having to retire young from post-concussion syndrome."
Reporting a teammate's possible concussion is a tough call to make. As an athlete, you don't want to upset your teammate. It's easy to imagine reporting a concussion and the sudden anger of your teammate who still thinks he can play.
But it's the right thing to do.
"You need to look at this the same way you would if you had a friend who's drinking and wants to drive, and you took away their keys," Nowinski says. "They are going to be upset with you, but you know it's the right thing to do,"
Getting on the Same Page
Your teammates, coaches and parents should all be on the same page. It should be normal and expected to report a concussion, not something that's frowned upon.
However, this is a significant culture change for some individuals and programs. The message needs to come from the top to get athletes to buy into it.
"Athletes all want to do the right thing, so we just need to teach them what the right thing is," Nowinski says. "Everyone wants to be a good teammate, and everybody wants to look out for their teammates, and so we're just changing the definition of what being a good teammate is."
The second Team Up Speak Up Day initiative is asking team leaders, whether it's a coach or captain, to read a speech to their team on Sept. 12 and post it on social media, tagged with #TeamUpSpeakUp to help spread the word. This quick speech explains that a teammate with a concussion needs your help, and as a concerned teammate, you are expected to report it if you suspect a head injury—no questions asked.
Tips for Identifying a Concussion
You don't need to be a medical professional to identify a suspected concussion. Often, the symptoms are relatively easy to detect. Here are some things to look for:
- Your teammate complains of a headache.
- You see a big hit, and your teammate stumbles or loses balance, even for one step.
- Your teammate stays on the field after a play but seems disoriented.
- Your teammate forgets plays.
- Your teammate slurs his speech or acts strangely on the sidelines.
Nowinski advises having a low threshold for reporting concussions. He says, "The consequences of being wrong if they don't have a concussion are nothing. The consequences of being wrong if they did have a concussion and you left them in can be catastrophic."
Check out the video above for more info on concussion symptoms.
How to Get Involved
Team Up Speak Up Day has already reached over 3 million athletes associated with 150 major organizations, including The Ivy League, The National Federation of State High School Associations, USA Rugby, Major League Lacrosse and USA Hockey, among others.
To learn how to participate, visit ConcussionFoundation.org.
- What Doctors Aren't Telling You About Concussions
- Concussions FAQs
- 4 Simple Tips to Understand and Prevent Concussions