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Fall is concussion season and not just for football, doctors warn

Youngstown State University sophomore forward Elis Klein Spindola throws the ball in during the game against Cleveland State University.
Stephanie Czekalinski
Ideastream Public Media
Youngstown State University sophomore forward Elis Klein Spindola throws the ball in during a women's soccer game against Cleveland State University. A study published in 2021 showed that female soccer players are twice as likely to suffer concussion as their male counterparts.

Many doctors call fall and early winter “concussion season” because they say the number of these types of injuries increases dramatically — mostly from soccer and football.

Northeast Ohio doctors are warning that it doesn’t necessarily take a dramatic hit to cause one.

Concussions can happen after a player falls to the ground and their head bounces off the ground in a whiplash motion or when a player is jostled and their head shakes like a bobblehead doll, doctors said. Repetitive impacts like headers can also cause a concussion.

Across the country, almost 4 million sports-related concussions occur every year, according to the University of Michigan. While concussions on the football field get a lot of attention, female athletes and kids of all ages also suffer from concussions, in a variety of sports.

Cleveland State University's head team physician, Dr. Marie Schaeffer, attends games and practices to watch for injuries. On a recent fall day, she and her team were staffing a women's soccer game against Youngstown State University.

During games, she keeps her eye on players after a hit — and not necessarily just with another player.

“What I'm looking for is a connection with the ball with their head or as the players go up for headers watching to see if their heads connect,” Schaeffer said. “What I'm watching for is how does that athletes recover after hitting their head — making sure they're cognizant of what's going on in the game.”

At the college level, there are often sports medicine doctors monitoring games and sometimes even practices. For many high school and youth athletes, it can be up to coaches and parents to keep an eye out.

Among younger players sometimes it can be hard to recognize a concussion, said Dr. Joseph Congeni, director of sports medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital.

Symptoms can develop between four and 48 hours after an injury and some little kids will just report that they don’t feel right without knowing exactly what’s wrong, he said.

“Then maybe 24 or 48 hours later, they go to school, the bells ringing, they're really concentrating hard in math class and science class, and they just start having significant headaches, significant symptoms,” he said. “All of a sudden they go down to the office… and they're starting to now look the part of what we call a ‘Monday morning concussion.’”

Dr. Molly McDermott, a sports medicine fellow at the Cleveland Clinic, played soccer in high school and later for the University of Indiana. McDermott said she remembers what a concussion feels like.

“Primarily it was headache initially, but I did have some dizziness after one where my head kind of got pushed into the ground,” she said. “I had some neck pain — feeling more emotional, tired, just rundown. Just not like myself.”

Those are typical symptoms, doctors said.

Concussions are functional injuries meaning your brain just isn’t working as well, Schaeffer said. Scientists don’t fully understand what is happening in the brain, but it appears neurons may be somehow disrupted, she added.

Because a concussion can’t be seen on a brain scan, athletes, parents and coaches have to be on the lookout for symptoms.

“At the top of the list is headache, pressure in the head,” said Congeni. “Sometimes neck pain can be a sign of a concussion — dizziness, visual changes. There's a lot of things that we look at. The problem is the brain has so many different functions that people can present in a lot of different ways.”

If you do suspect a concussion call your pediatrician, and they can connect you with a clinic to get a proper diagnosis, Congeni said.

It’s time to go to the emergency room if an athlete has blurred or double vision, persistent vomiting, prolonged loss of consciousness or a deteriorating consciousness state or increasing restlessness agitation or combativeness, which can indicate a more serious injury, he said.

While a concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury and can be scary, there are treatments and most resolve within two to six weeks, doctors said.

For athletes, reporting concussion symptoms means they might be out of play for a period. State law requires an athlete with a suspected concussion be cleared by a doctor before returning to play.

McDermott said she remembers what that’s like, but reporting symptoms is important.

“For one of my concussions, I did not report it because I didn't know what was going on,” she said. “It's something I look back on, and I really regret it now.”

There were protocols at that time, but they were looser than today, McDermott said.

“Now we have very strict return-to-play protocols,” she said. “And I really believe they help the athletes a lot.”

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.