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In the Super Bowl this weekend, any player who takes a shot to the head and shows signs of a concussion will be taken out of the game, but it's a different story for high school athletes who sometimes play on despite a head injury.
NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a new effort to pass laws that will protect the brains of young athletes.
JON HAMILTON: Each year, more than 60,000 high school athletes sustain a concussion. It's an injury that temporarily affects brain function, though it may or may not cause a person to lose consciousness.
And it's not just football players who get concussions. It's male and female athletes involved in soccer, wrestling, basketball, baseball, field hockey, even volleyball. And many of these athletes never get an evaluation that would reveal their injury.
Jeff Miller of the National Football League says there's a simple reason.
Mr. JEFF MILLER (National Football League): Unfortunately, kids at the high school level, the youth sports level, don't have neurosurgeons, neurologists and some of the finest doctors on the sidelines. It's just not practicable.
HAMILTON: So the NFL, the American College of Sports Medicine and a long list of other groups are joining forces to require other measures to protect young athletes. Miller says the coalition wants every state to have a law like the one passed in Washington in 2009.
Mr. MILLER: Washington state was the first to pass a law named after a youth football player named after Zackery Lystedt, who was a terrific kid and suffered some debilitating injuries as a result of a concussion suffered in a youth football game.
HAMILTON: Lystedt's head hit the ground in the first half, but he was allowed to keep playing. And when he took another shot to the head late in the game, the result was devastating.
The Lystedt law says an athlete suspected of having a head injury must be removed from competition. That's because even a minor injury to the brain can make it highly vulnerable to further damage.
A concussion law might have helped Sarah Rainey, a high school soccer player in Alexandria, Virginia. During a game 10 months ago, she took a violent hit.
Ms. SARAH RAINEY: And I thought I just got the wind knocked out of me, and I told my coaches and the trainer that I was OK. I passed the sideline evaluation, and I played the remaining five minutes and then two overtime periods.
HAMILTON: But after the game, she began experiencing headaches, nausea and fuzzy thinking. Rainey tried to go back to school, but everything about it made her symptoms worse.
Ms. RAINEY: The small print, reading for homework or a computer screen, the lights, and there were several things that just - even fluctuations in my teachers' voices would trigger my headaches and make me seasick.
HAMILTON: It was two months before Rainey could get through a full day of school and four months before her brain was back to normal.
She was treated by Dr. Gerry Gioia at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Gioia is part of the coalition pushing for concussion laws. He says no law could have prevented Rainey's concussion, but a law might have helped limit the damage.
Dr. GERRY GIOIA (Children's National Medical Center): The problem is that she was let back into the game later on, and it's hard to know exactly the contribution of that. She didn't take another hit, but certainly she was overworking that body and brain during the period of this metabolic crisis.
HAMILTON: Gioia says Rainey also returned to class too soon, something else a law could have prevented. He says an injured brain is like a sprained ankle: It heals faster if you don't use it too much.
Dr. GIOIA: As you're learning and thinking and doing all that good performance activity in the school, that's demanding more from your brain than it can handle. It's taking away the important energy toward recovery, and it basically then is affecting, negatively, your recovery.
HAMILTON: Gioia says the coalition wants concussion laws to include provisions for easing injured students back into the classroom. But for the laws to work, athletes who take a blow to the head need a proper evaluation. Jim Whitehead of the American College of Sports Medicine says that means involving a medical professional with the right expertise.
Mr. JIM WHITEHEAD (American College of Sports Medicine): You don't want coaches making medical decisions. Sorry, they didn't go to school for that. That isn't their core competency. So you want to take any of those things out of the hands of people who really aren't qualified to make those judgments and put it in the hands of professionals who are.
HAMILTON: Whitehead says what coaches should do is learn the subtle signs that could mean a concussion.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: And if there's any doubt whatsoever, you sit the athlete until he or she has been cleared by a health professional.
HAMILTON: About 10 states, including Virginia, have passed youth concussion laws. The coalition's goal is to get laws in at least 10 more states by the end of the year.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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