Better awareness leads to doubling of reported concussions in Alberta, expert says

An expert in concussions in young Albertans says increased awareness has led to greater reporting, which could account for a startling jump in reported cases.

'An increase in the last 5 to 10 years from about 4,000 a year to 8,000 a year for kids under the age of 18'

Reported concussions in young Albertans has doubled in the last 5 to 10 years but one expert says part of that is an increased awareness of the problem. (CBC)

An expert in concussions in young Albertans says increased awareness has led to greater reporting, which could account for a startling jump in reported cases.

"I don't think there has been an increase in the actual number of concussions, but what is happening is people are recognizing injury, and the first step to treating any injury is to have it identified, so it is a good thing," Keith Yeates told Alberta@Noon Wednesday.

"We have actually seen a doubling in the number of concussions diagnosed in children in Alberta and other parts of the world. That increased awareness definitely will lead to better outcomes. [There has been] an increase in the last five to 10 years from about 4,000 a year to 8,000 a year for kids under the age of 18. It is much more in the minds of health care providers these days."

Keith Yeates leads the University of Calgary's integrated concussion research team. (Keith Yeates)

Yeates, a pediatric neuropsychologist and head of the integrated concussion research program at the University of Calgary, says the issue is finally on the minds of many.

This week in Ottawa, Gov. Gen. David Johnston is hosting a conference on the issue, bringing together former pro athletes, medical professionals and community leaders.

Ken Dryden, a former NHL goaltender, author and politician, spoke at the conference at Rideau Hall.

"I believe the greatest risk to sports in the future to the number of people who participate, to the games we decide to play, and to our understanding of sports as something good for our health and development, is head injuries," Dryden said this week.

Yeates said one in five children in Alberta will experience a concussion by the age of ten.

"There are red flags," Yeates explained.

"If you are  knocked out, that is one red flag. You should go to an emergency department. If you are repeatedly vomiting after one of these injuries, you should go to an emergency department. On the other hand, some concussions are very subtle and very mild, may be associated with a headache, maybe feeling a little foggy, nothing that necessarily warrants a trip to the emergency department, but it is always a good idea if there is a suspicion of concussion to seek medical attention."

'Walk it off' culture

The educator says one of the hurdles to overcome is the "walk it off" culture in some sports.

"One of the problems we face with athletes of course, is many of them don't want to stop play, so sometimes they have been reluctant to tell a coach, or a trainer or a parent, 'Hey I got my bell rung.'" he said.

Yeates said standard education programs in organized sport are helping to bring about changes in that regard. 

"Kids are getting socialized now to think that it is okay, in fact it is really important, to tell parents and for parents to tell coaches when the kids say things."

He said parents need to understand that it is better for their child to miss a few games and return only once fully recovered, rather than rush back to the game and put themselves at risk for another injury.

"They are not going to play as well when they are still affected by a concussion," he explained.

"All of that is part of the education."

A Calgary mother says her two sons, ages eight and 10, both play hockey but as a family they have decided they won't expose the boys to other high-impact sports at the same time.

"I am reluctant because I have seen the other end," Shannon, who has a background in kinesiology, told Alberta@Noon.

"I have seen athletes who have said, 'Oh, I just got my bell rung. I am fine, I am fine,' and then have trouble in university concentrating because they had multiple concussions that were never dealt with properly," she said.

Another parent said one of her daughters had two concussions with a couple of weeks a few years ago, and as a result, she was off from school for more than a year.

"She ended up with non-stop migraines for a good six to eight months," Charity from Medicine Hat said.

"It was very difficult to find what to truly do. All we were ever told was to rest and stay in a dark room and now I find out that that is really not the best option, so finding true help was really hard for us. She missed a full year of school. It affected her cognitive skills, her speech, her memory, it affected everything."

Concussions: A silent epidemic?

Meanwhile, Yeates says he's not suggesting keeping kids off the ice or field. Rather, education is important for everyone involved.

"I am a big believer in the value of sport," Yeates said.

"We have lots of data that suggests that sport plays a really important role in kid's physical health, in their mental health, trying to avoid the plague of obesity that has been a problem in North America," he said.

"There are so many benefits to sport that I don't think we want to go in the direction of stopping kids from participating in sport but you can make decisions as a family about what risks you want your child to potentially take and try to make sure that your sport league and coaches are educated, that they have a protocol in place for dealing with concussion, for pulling kids if there is any suspicion," he said.

"That is really true for children and teens, there is just no reason to take a risk with a young person's brain is there is suspicion of a concussion."

With files from Alberta@Noon