The Academic Fallout Of Teen Athlete Concussions

Most of the discussion on concussions in sports has focused on professional athletes — mainly football players — and how there needs to be better knowledge and training in treating head injuries. The issue is much more prevalent and serious at younger ages, however — particularly at the high school level. According to recent research, 400,000 concussions occurred in high school athletics in the 2005-2008 school years. For all those student athletes, the focus has been on how head injuries affect the athletic side of things. Now, the House Education and Labor Committee is examining what one concussion expert calls the untold story — the academic consequences of head injury on the student athlete.

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There were an estimated 400,000 concussions in high school sports during the 2005 through 2008 school years. And while there's a lot of talk about helping student athletes recover and get back into the game, there has been little focus on the student half of that equation. A head injury expert calls the effective concussions on academic performance the untold story, and tomorrow, that will change, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Tellingly, it's the House Committee on Education and Labor that holds a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday about sports concussions and high school athletes. On the witness list, 19-year-old Michelle Pelton.

MICHELLE PELTON: Michelle Beltin' Pelton.

GOLDMAN: That was the nickname she had as the hard-hitting catcher on her softball team in Swansea, Massachusetts. She was just as tough playing point guard on the basketball court.

PELTON: I did not care if I got banged around. I didn't care if I banged anybody else around. And I was very aggressive and I was good at what I did.

GOLDMAN: But then, two basketball-related concussions at the age of 14 left Michelle Pelton in a daze. She was an eighth-grader suffering pounding headaches and crushing fatigue, and who went to school, she says, and did nothing.

PELTON: I learned something in school and I'd go home and try and do my homework and I'd just - I couldn't remember it. Come test time, I'd look at it and it's like I've - the first time I've ever looked at it before in my life.

GOLDMAN: Pelton says her eighth grade teachers interpreted her lack of focus and concentration as laziness. In Pelton's words, they thought she was trying to beat the system.

PELTON: They weren't educated about concussions neither. And I had post-concussion syndrome, which, as you know, all the symptoms of having a concussion and - sorry I lost my train of thought.

GOLDMAN: Is that one of the results of what's happened to you?

PELTON: Oh, yeah. That's still very ongoing. It's - I just don't pay attention.

GOLDMAN: Things got better in high school. A long layoff from sports allowed her brain to recover. Pelton's grades improved. But during her high school years, Pelton would suffer five more concussions. By the end of her senior year before she graduated, she was being tutored at home in her pajamas because she couldn't get up and go to school.

GERARD GIOIA: There hasn't been a lot of research on the academic consequences or the academic outcomes with sport-related concussion.

GOLDMAN: Much of the research that has been done has been by pediatric neuropsychologist Gerry Gioia. He runs the Washington, D.C.-area SCORE program, an acronym for Safe Concussion Outcome Recovery and Education. Dr. Gioia led a recent study to understand the impact of kids' head injuries on learning. He found about half of those he studied still had problems more than a month into their recovery.

GIOIA: You're talking about a month-and-a-half of disruption of, you know, thinking, of memory, of concentration, of symptoms worsening every time you kind of put your head into things.

GOLDMAN: That's a significant chunk of time, says Gioia, when grades and performance can suffer. He says the key to helping the growing number of student athletes trying to cope with concussion is having informed school nurses, teachers, administrators who understand how to manage the problem, how to be patient, and give the student time to, as Gioia puts it, let their brain software reset.

EMT: I know what to do, she says. I could definitely save you.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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