ARI SHAPIRO: Concussions have been in the news a lot, mostly connected with pro sports. We wanted to know how common they are, so NPR's health blog, "Shots," conducted a poll with Truven Health. It found that nearly a quarter of Americans say they have experienced a concussion, and three-quarters of those have sought medical treatment for it. Christopher Giza specializes in traumatic brain injury at UCLA and joins us now. Welcome.
CHRISTOPHER GIZA: I'm happy to be here.
SHAPIRO: Well, what stood out to you in the results of this survey?
GIZA: There's a few things. You know, a lot of the discussion about concussion in sports is negative. And obviously for good reason, that injuries to the brain are not something that we should take lightly. I think there's also some reason for hope that we see from the results from this survey. I believe over 90 percent or close to 90 percent of individuals said they would seek treatment for their child's concussion. And I think that's a good factor, and that's a sign that there's increased awareness.
SHAPIRO: So we should worry if this is happening to young people, if it's happening repeatedly. How else do you tell the difference between the ordinary, being knocked around kind of concussion and the kind of concussion that a person might not fully recover from?
GIZA: Well, I think, you know, the symptoms of concussion are common symptoms that occur in life even without a concussion. And we don't have a litmus test - a brain scan or a blood test or a computer test - that by itself can diagnose concussion with 100 percent accuracy.
SHAPIRO: When you talk about common symptoms, do you mean, like, dizziness, headaches, that sort of thing?
GIZA: Right. So, you know, when I grew up, we thought you had to be knocked unconscious to have a concussion. And it turns out that probably less than 10 percent of clinically diagnosed concussions have loss of consciousness. Headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, incoordination - these are all more common symptoms of concussion and can occur without a loss of consciousness.
SHAPIRO: Now in this poll, two-thirds of the concussions among young people were reported to be sports-related. Do you see awareness of this problem leading to changes in the way schools handle sports programs?
GIZA: I think we are already seeing that, yes. I mean, most of the discussion regarding concussions is focused on sports. I think we're perhaps still a little bit misdirected in that, you know, there's a sports participation pyramid, at the top of which are professional athletes and then high-level collegiate athletes. But the base of the pyramid - 10 or 100 times as many athletes are at the high school and even younger ages - the middle school, the youth levels. Most of the discussion that we have in the media and a lot of the research money and funding and projects are focused on sort of college and up when really, most of the individuals who are vulnerable are younger than that.
SHAPIRO: Another interesting finding in this poll - 84 percent of households that said a child had experienced a concussion related to sports said they would let the child play that sport again. Do you think that's the right call?
GIZA: I think it's a tricky call. You know, the vast majority of concussions recover completely. And so the decision to return to a contact sport really depends on what's the proper timing for that. Kids derive a lot of benefits from participation in sport also, and I think nobody would argue that they shouldn't return to a contact sport prematurely or, you know, they shouldn't hide their symptoms because that gives the risk of having repeated injuries.
But if a child has a concussion, it's diagnosed, they're walked through a careful recovery plan, then it could be reasonable to have them go back and participate in that sport again once they've had full recovery.
SHAPIRO: Christopher Giza directs the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT program. He's also the co-author of the American Academy of Neurology's sports concussion guideline. Thank you for joining us.
GIZA: Thank you.
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