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Today in "Your Health," biking to work. But first, student athletes. They're bigger and stronger than a decade ago and they play rougher, which has led to more concussions. It turns out girls who play soccer and basketball are more likely than boys to end up in the emergency room with a head injury. NPR's Nancy Shute has the story.
Ms. MEGAN LINDSEY: Nothing quite like English and band.
NANCY SHUTE: Megan Lindsey is a 14-year-old freshman in East Lansing, Michigan. She's a scholar and a musician, but she's serious about soccer. In a game back in September, she dove for the ball. She was going all out to make the save, and she wasn't even thinking about getting hurt - until she did.
Ms. LINDSEY: A girl was coming right at me. And I came out of the goal, and I went down, and the girl got her cleats onto my face.
SHUTE: Megan had a scuffed-up face and a concussion, though she didn't know it. At the time, the knock on the head didn't seem as bad as her face.
Ms. LINDSEY: All I could really think of was how much pain it was in my face.
SHUTE: Megan got back in the game just as soon as she could. But three weeks later, she got clobbered again.
Ms. LINDSEY: The girl was coming towards me, and I came out and got the ball, and I went down.
SHUTE: Megan's mom, Barbara Wirtz, couldn't quite see what had happened from the sidelines, but she did realize that something was terribly wrong: Megan was unconscious.
Ms. BARBARA WIRTZ: I don't know if she got knocked down by the player coming in to take a shot.
Ms. LINDSEY: My teammates said that I was kicked. But I was knocked out for five minutes.
Ms. WIRTZ: Her lower body was shaking. And then when I got closer, I could see that her upper body was shaking as well.
SHUTE: Barbara rode in the ambulance to the hospital. There, doctors tested Megan's reaction time and awareness. She was diagnosed with a seizure and a concussion, and sent home.
Ms. LINDSEY: I felt like I could have slept for ages the first day.
SHUTE: Megan went back to school that Monday, but it wasn't easy.
Ms. LINDSEY: The first and second days coming back, I did have trouble with the light and the noise in the cafeteria.
SHUTE: Her parents were worried. They took Megan to see a neurologist who specializes in concussions. He said the only cure is rest, to give the brain time to heal. So Megan dropped sports and saxophone. She even stopped texting. But she still wasn't always thinking or speaking clearly.
Ms. LINDSEY: I would say something, and I think it would make sense with my friends. But my friends would look at me like I'm some crazy person.
SHUTE: That made Megan and her mom realize that they had to get serious about monitoring her recovery.
Ms. LINDSEY: I have a habit of not really telling people if I'm in pain or not.
Ms. WIRTZ: Megan would say - when she came home from school - I had a good day; I'm feeling fine. And then two hours later, it would inadvertently come up that, oh yeah, but by the way, I got a headache when I watched that movie.
Ms. LINDSEY: I didn't think I was in pain but, you know, maybe by anyone else's standard, I was.
Ms. WIRTZ: Being able to tease those symptoms out of her was challenging.
SHUTE: Concussion is hard for parents and doctors to monitor. It's a problem with brain function, and you can't see it on a CAT scan. Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher of the University of Michigan, Megan's neurologist, says a concussion is something like a sudden jolt of electricity to a string of Christmas lights.
Dr. JEFFREY KUTCHER (University of Michigan): You would see all the lights lighting up at once. There would be a massive discharge across the entire ball of lights. But then that discharge would make it difficult for the lights to work appropriately afterwards. They might short out a little bit; there might be some communication problems between the different strands of lights.
SHUTE: Concussions are now the second-most common injury among student athletes. And there's some evidence that girls are more likely to get concussions than boys - maybe because their necks aren't as strong. No one knows for sure. But some schools are trying to do a better job monitoring student athletes.
Mr. DAVE KELLEY (Athletic Director, Churchill High School): As a coach, and not too long ago, this was sort of our responsibility to figure out if a kid had a concussion.
SHUTE: Last year, athletic director Dave Kelley of Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, took a page from the NFL's playbook. He started giving student athletes a reaction time and memory test.
Junior Maddy Flax plays lacrosse. She's in Coach Kelley's office to take the test.
Ms. MADDY FLAX: Woman, house, bath.
SHUTE: Maddy is watching words flash on a computer screen, trying to remember which ones she's seen. Coach Kelley says the test will record how an athlete reacts when her brain is not injured.
Mr. KELLEY: If there's a potential concussion and they re-test, we look for abnormalities. So if they perform poorly on memorization or if their brain didn't react as quickly, that may show sign of brain injury.
SHUTE: Earlier this month, the American Academy of Neurology said any athlete suspected of having a concussion should be removed from play until they have a medical evaluation. And Coach Kelley has already used the memory test to bench some athletes until they can recover fully. In Michigan, Megan Lindsey is training again. She can now run 30 minutes on a treadmill without getting a headache.
Ms. LINDSEY: Today, I'm actually able to start doing the workouts that I was doing beforehand. So I think progress has been made.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHUTE: And in January, she hopes to be back on the field, playing hard - but taking care of that head.
Nancy Shute, NPR News.
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