She watched her son slowly walk out of wrestling practice with his head held down, a drastic change from the energetic kid who was always joking with friends.
LaTheda Noonan asked her seventh-grade son Damien Noonan what was wrong, and he simply replied he had a headache. On the drive home he hung his head and barely said a word. When they got home, he had to hold on to furniture and brace himself against the walls to walk across the room.
The mother had seen enough at that point and called a doctor, who told her to go to the emergency room. A doctor quickly diagnosed Damien Noonan as having a concussion without taking a scan, simply based on his groggy, listless behavior and the way his eyes were reacting.
A concussion is essentially when the brain hits against the skull, typically caused when someone is hit in the head or suffers whiplash from the body being jarred. Federal lawsuits and national media coverage make people think about concussions in football the most. And while that sport has the most concussions per 1,000 athletes, the injury can occur in any sport.
Damien Noonan did not have much interest in playing football because of his size, since he weighs about 80 pounds, and his parents weren’t going to let him play anyway. Wrestling was considered a safer alternative because athletes in that sport typically compete against people weighing about the same as they do. In football, Damien Noonan would have been competing against players twice his size.
About 77 of every 1,000 youth football players suffer a concussion, while hockey players don’t trail too far behind with 62 concussions per every 1,000 athletes each year. Wrestlers are the seventh-most likely athlete to suffer a concussion, with about 24 of every 1,000 athletes being diagnosed with one each year.
Coaches in every sport have to be aware of concussions. Allowing a concussion to heal is vital, as athletes are three to five times more likely to suffer another concussion or brain injury, regardless of their sport, if they return to competition before the injury fully heals, said Pat Kersey, a sports physician for St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis and team physician for the Indianapolis Colts.
‘Girls much more honest’
Another sport where concussions are a concern is soccer, which is the sport where girls are most likely to suffer a concussion. Thirty-three of every 1,000 girls soccer players suffer a concussion, compared with 19 of every 1,000 boys soccer players.
Head injuries in soccer can occur in a multitude of ways. Goalies can get kicked in the head when they dive for a loose ball in front of the goal; or two players can collide trying to gain possession or while going up for a header.
The Greenwood Community High School girls soccer team had four players on a roster of about 20 players miss games two years ago with concussions. All but one of the four athletes who suffered a concussion missed the remainder of the season, coach Anne Toliver-Pratt said.
There’s no way to prevent head injuries completely, and contact is always going to be a part of some sports. One of Greenwood’s goalies was hurt when she got kicked in the head diving for a loose ball, an accident that had nothing to do with preparation or skill level, Toliver-Pratt said.
Greenwood players are encouraged to try headers — where a player jumps in the air to hit the ball off the head. But some players can be scared or nervous to try a header for fear of injury, so the coaching staff will encourage them to try the move in practice to get proper technique down, an important part of not getting hurt, Toliver-Pratt said.
Soccer players can hurt themselves attempting a header with poor form or by using a bad angle, thus hitting the ball off the wrong part of the head. Female soccer players suffer about 57 percent more concussions than their male counterparts, but that difference may have more to due with the mental approach of those athletes than any physical differences. Males are more likely to demonstrate the warrior mentality, hiding or lying about any symptoms they may be showing and not wanting to appear weak in front of teammates, friends and coaches, Kersey said.
“Girls are much more honest than boys and much more likely to report their symptoms and be more honest about resolution of recovery,” Kersey said.
Complete mental rest vital
Damien Noonan knew when he suffered the concussion during wrestling practice at Clark-Pleasant Middle School. He had his legs swept out from under him early in practice. That led to him hitting the back of his head on the wrestling mat, which covers a cement floor.
“I stayed in practice and pushed myself a little further than I should have,” Damien Noonan said. “I probably hit my head more times than I needed to, but I wanted to get through the practice and show that I could fight and be one of the best. But that didn’t work out.”
Damien Noonan felt tired after practice and struggled to stay awake on the way to the hospital. He suffered headaches for several days after the hit and wasn’t hungry. The treatment: He was to have one week of complete mental rest, and ultimately he was not allowed to return to wrestling.
While the complete mental rest may seem difficult, it’s vital for recovery, Kersey said.
For Damien Noonan, that meant no watching television, no texting friends on his phone and no computer activities. Instead, the family played lots of board games. Their nights were filled with contests of Battleship and Clue. He was allowed to listen to the television but had to sit on a couch with his back toward the picture.
The treatment is common for people who have suffered a concussion, Kersey said. A concussion needs to be treated like other injuries with the rest that is needed for recovery. For example, if someone injures an ankle, they will likely keep weight and pressure off that foot and let it heal. The same is done for a concussion, allowing the brain to rest and heal, Kersey said.
A majority of light and moderate and some severe cases will undergo some sort of complete mental rest to recover from a concussion. A person is then allowed to slowly return to reading or watching television, Kersey said.
About 23 percent of concussion patients who go through St. Vincent Sports Performance fully recover in about seven to 10 days, while about 30 percent of cases take two to three weeks to fully heal. Another 20 percent of athletes with concussions take more than three weeks to heal, and only 5 percent take more than three months to be back to normal.
“There is no difference between this and an ankle sprain. It’s all about hitting milestones and functionality,” Kersey said.