What should parents know about concussions in the wake of Junior Seau’s suicide?

William Meehan, MD, director of Boston Children's Hospital's Sports Concussion Clinic

Yesterday’s suicide of former NFL star Junior Seau has once again raised troubling questions about the short- and long-term impact of concussions on the brain. While it’s not clear that Seau was diagnosed with concussions during his 20-plus year career, his method of suicide—shooting himself in the chest—echoes that of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who killed himself in 2011 and left a note saying that he wanted his brain to be studied for the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE is “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma.”

Notice that it doesn’t say, “a history of concussion”. What’s troubling about CTE is that it’s not just happening to former NFL linemen who make their living crashing into each other every week. William Meehan, MD, director Boston Children’s Hospital’s Sports Concussion Clinic, says he’s seeing serious concussions in kids who play sports not typically associated with them.

(In this video, Meehan talks about concussions and a grant he recently received from the NFL to study concussive brain injury.)

So what are parents to do if they want their children to play sports, but don’t want to risk them getting a concussion? Here are the five things Meehan says all parents should be aware of when it comes to their child athletes (for more on this topic, check out Meehan’s recent Q&A on concussions).

  1. Most young athletes and parents don’t recognize their symptoms as a concussion. If you suspect your child has a concussion, see a doctor.
  2. If concussions are managed properly and the child doesn’t go back into risky situations until they’re recovered, she will likely be fine.
  3. Neck-strengthening exercises, which can help keep the head from snapping backward or forward during impact, are a great way to help reduce the chance of concussion.
  4. Helmets prevent catastrophic brain injury, but they don’t prevent concussions.
  5. Children who get a second concussion before fully recovering from the first are at risk for serious, long-term problems.

Moreover, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that even mild concussions, not treated properly, can impact a person’s long-term brain function. Meehan himself recently presented NFL-funded research that suggested multiple, mild concussions over time likely have a greater long-term negative effect than previously thought.

“While we still need to know more about the effects of repeated concussions, especially for young athletes, some things are certain,” says Meehan. “The effects are cumulative. The consequences are real.”

For more information on concussions and young athletes, please contact the experts Boston Children’s Sports Concussion Clinic, (781) 216-1328, Concussion.Sportsmed@Childrens.Harvard.edu

William P. Meehan III, MD, is director of the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, director of the Sports Concussion Clinic and director of Research for the Brain Injury Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. His research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Football League and the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology. Meehan is author of the book Kids, Sports, and Concussion: A Guide for Coaches and Parents. He was recently elected to the Medical Advisory Board of the Sports Legacy Institute.