Longform

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

Page 7 of 9

Kayla's ordeal illustrates a debate occurring in the medical community: How long should a concussed youth sit out before returning to athletic activities?

"Some people said 10 days, others said three months," says the Texas Medical Center's Jones about a medical conference that he recently attended. Meanwhile, Ashley sits somewhere in the middle. "We really need to be thinking seriously about waiting at least 30 days until a person with a concussion returns to play."

Natasha Helmick, along with licensed physicians, believes that concussed kids also need to take time away from academics in order to fully recuperate. While she recovered from her injuries, Helmick says, she refused to miss her classes at Allen High.

"Part of the reason why I'm so bad now is because I had a concussion and I played the next day and I went to school the day after that," she says.

As athletes ascend to high stakes university-level sports and academics, some are starting to wonder if the gamble really is worth it.

Born and raised in Santa Ana, California, Karoline "Kari" Krumpholz was destined for water-polo greatness. Her father, Kurt Krumpholz, a three-time All-American selection in men's water polo, was inducted into UCLA's Hall of Fame in 2008, the same year that Kari's brother, J.W., won a Olympic silver medal with the U.S. water polo team.

As a sophomore at Foothill High School, Krumpholz and her water polo team won the 2007 California Southern Section Division I championship. After a star-studded career that included numerous athletic honors, she accepted a scholarship to UCLA.

During a UCLA practice in February, Krumpholz was defending "one of the strongest girls on the team" when she got clocked between the eyes by her teammate's elbow. Krumpholz thought her nose was broken, but upon further examination, a student trainer said she was fine. As a precaution, the trainer made her skip the rest of practice.

However, Krumpholz wasn't doing so well the next day. "I went to class, and I knew something was wrong. I couldn't focus, and I felt out of my body. I am a really good student so for that to happen, I knew something wasn't right."

That day, a doctor diagnosed her with a concussion. Five months later, in between nearly daily visits to various UCLA physicians as well as Orange County's Migraine & Headache Center, she's still experiencing symptoms.

To Krumpholz's knowledge, this is the first concussion that she has received. "But since I've been having so many problems, one doctor said that it's possible that I had undiagnosed concussions in the past," she says.

If and when her symptoms clear, it's doubtful Krumpholz, a sophomore majoring in psychology, will return to the water.

"It would be scary for me to play again because my brain is really important to me and I have plans for graduate school," she says. "Once I am cleared, I'm going to have to really examine if I'm willing to take that risk."

For those who decide to stick it out, they may be playing a game that could be significantly altered in the future. Arizona, for example, has considered eliminating kickoffs from high school football because of the dangers inherent when players collide with each other at top speeds.

Other organizations are relying on updated helmet technologies to try and prevent concussions. Even though it's impossible to completely prevent head trauma in football, helmet manufacturer Riddell has, in the past 20 years, redesigned and released several types of helmets.

For the 2011 season, each varsity player for Houston-area football powerhouse Katy High School will don the pricey and brand-new Riddell Revolution Speed helmet, which costs anywhere from $236 to $1,030. The previous version, the Riddell Revolution, helped decrease concussions by more than 300 percent, according to Katy head athletic trainer Justin Landers.

Katy's football staff has the money to use ImPACT testing and state-of-the-art helmets. However, one thing Landers and his coaching staff can't control is the win-hungry culture of Texas high school football.

From early June to mid-July, with the hot Texas sun overhead, Katy players run sprints on an outdoor practice field and hit the weight room during a five-week summer fitness program. Around this time every year, several parents — who are desperate for their freshman enrollees to gain a competitive advantage — will call Landers to ask his advice on what type of helmet they should buy for their sons. Landers, the son of a helmet salesman, is freaked that these kids will go out on some random field with ill-fitting equipment and hurt themselves.

Landers is another athletic trainer who believes that the state's recently passed concussion legislation has its shortcomings and that "the judgment call on whether to pull a kid from play won't make the decision any easier," he says. "We would look foolish if we were to send a kid to the doctor and he didn't end up having a concussion. That would be a waste of time and money."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
By Steve Jansen and Gus Garcia-Roberts