Knocked Out: For Kids, Concussions Can Be Worse Than for Adults

Natasha Helmick goes up for a header during a Dallas soccer match and gets speared in the left temple by an opponent. The 14-year-old, a talented center midfielder playing in the choice Lake Highlands Girls Classic League, crumples to the ground.

She can't see anything out of her left eye. Her coach asks whether she's okay, Helmick lies and says she's good to go, and the coach puts her back into the lineup. She plays the remainder of the game, even though one eye sees darkness while floaters and sparkly objects dance in front of the other.

Helmick plays again later that day, sans full eyesight. Her vision will eventually return, but five years and four concussions later, Natasha Helmick is unable to recall much of her childhood.

Miami's David Goldstein spoke to the Florida legislators about devastating health problems that developed after he suffered multiple concussions. Despite his testimony, Florida killed a concussion bill for youth athletes.
Michael McElroy
Miami's David Goldstein spoke to the Florida legislators about devastating health problems that developed after he suffered multiple concussions. Despite his testimony, Florida killed a concussion bill for youth athletes.
Five years ago, former soccer player Natasha Helmick (left) once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion. Today, her mother, Micky, says that it takes her daughter three times as long to complete mental tasks.
Mark Graham
Five years ago, former soccer player Natasha Helmick (left) once played a game half-blind after sustaining a concussion. Today, her mother, Micky, says that it takes her daughter three times as long to complete mental tasks.

When speaking to her, you wouldn't know that Helmick, who was forced to give up an athletic scholarship to Texas State University-San Marcos, is a brain-damaged 19-year-old. "But academically," says her mother, Micky Helmick, "everything is three times harder."

As Helmick racked up more concussions, David Goldstein, a "little freshman" by his own estimation, shouldn't even have been on the soccer pitch during the January 2010 district finals for Ransom Everglades, a Miami-area prep school, against longtime rival Gulliver. But when an older kid was injured, Goldstein subbed in and was playing one of the best games of his life when he collided head-to-head with an opponent he describes as "a monster from Gulliver."

Game tape shows Goldstein holding his head and swaying like a drunk. But there was no way he was going to take himself out of this match — and his coach didn't, either.

It was — though Goldstein didn't understand the medical ramifications at the time — his third concussion in four years. After the game, he felt nauseous and cowed by light, stumbling to his dad's car and collapsing.

For months, the "blaring" headache persisted. "It's always there," he says. "It's so intense, it takes over your life." Previously a devoted student, Goldstein took refuge in the school nurse's office three hours each day, closing his eyes to the painful light. He became agitated and impatient with his friends. Every specialist his parents took him to was perplexed by his condition.

Across the country, people have awakened to the sometimes irreversible damage of concussions, especially in high-impact professional sports. With much of the attention focused on the National Football and National Hockey leagues, Village Voice Media — following a months-long, nationwide investigation into the consequences of concussion on youth athletes, who are bigger and more aggressive than in past generations and often play year-round — has found the following:

• The effect of a concussion on kids can be much more devastating than on adults. Doctors say that, until people are in their early to mid-20s, their brains are not fully developed and can't take the same level of trauma as adult brains can.

• Postmortem analysis, the only surefire way to measure concussions' devastating effects, shows that repeated blows to the head may be linked with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, and a number of other fatal diseases.

• An athlete who doesn't exhibit outward signs of a concussion (headaches, dizziness, vomiting, temporary amnesia) can still experience changes in brain activity similar to those in a player who has been clinically diagnosed with a concussion.

• Thus far in 2011, 20 state governments and the District of Columbia have signed concussion legislation that prohibits an athlete from returning to play until cleared by a licensed physician. To date, 28 states (as well as the city of Chicago) have concussion laws in place. This does not include Florida, whose legislators struck down a proposed bill that could have helped protect youth athletes.

• The ImPACT test, widely regarded as the go-to neurological exam to measure concussive blows, doesn't always accurately gauge a player's readiness to return to action. And you can cheat on it.

Meanwhile, as attorneys debate how the new concussion laws will play out, kids like Natasha Helmick, whose memory struggles sometimes resemble those of an elderly person, continue to battle a condition that puts parents who want the best for their children in an interesting position: Would they push to have them be standouts in athletics — sometimes the key to a better future — if they realized that in some cases, their kids can be harmed for life by their participation in elite sports?

The answer is "no" for Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who says, based on his own concussion episodes, that he will never allow his kids to play a contact sport.


For Ali Champness, it was a freak accident, a ball kicked in her face by her own goalie during practice that turned her life upside down. The 14-year-old freshman, who'd already made junior varsity at Garces Memorial, a Catholic high school in Bakersfield, California, told her parents the sting went away after a little while.

Two days later, though, on the way to a game, recalls her mother, Kim Champness, Ali complained of a headache and dizziness.

During play, the ball was kicked in the air and "brushed across the front of [Ali's] face," says Kim. "It was not a hard hit at all, but right after that, she started stuttering." Ali saw a doctor, who discovered a number of much more serious problems.

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10 comments
days out for kids
days out for kids

Wally do not ever gets whatever what is the news is during things. He's got designate is acceptable. Asphalt. What i mean discourage start! Speculation the guy would will need to care about having a concussion should the guy tried athletic? Heh.

Amber Murray
Amber Murray

Your websites terrible! Loading issues won't let me read the article.

Doug Bittle
Doug Bittle

Walter never sees what the news is in anything. He's name is appropriate. Concrete. As in block head! Guess he wouldn't have to worry about getting a concussion if he played sports? Heh

SLA
SLA

I had a concussion when I was 5 from being thrown from a horse. Will it be illegal to ride hroses as a kid too? I probably had a harder time than everyone else in a lot of subjects too, but I was never "dumb" always perceptive and got decent grades, but I had a problem retaining the information without a lot of extra work or emotion involved. I forget things very easily, but not to the point that it's screwing up my life. At what point do we ask ourselves is a safe and boring world really living...? Now if they're playing sports, yeah, don't be a moron, get your kid out and take them to the doctor...but frankly, the damage is done at that point.

charles
charles

Uhhh how about an informed society???? personally I didin't know about the future problems but thanks to this article I do now....people like you should be hit in the head with a shovel.....after diggin of course.

Walter Concrete
Walter Concrete

I don't see what the news is here. It's common sense. Isn't western medicine and big pharma the saviours of the western world? It's obvious...if you get hit in the head you sit out and get checked. Sports is a game, it's not crucial to play with injury. In fact it's a programmed response for slaves to adhere to and be one of the pack.

 
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