Concussion Symposium in Pittsburgh: A Positive Step, But Should Go Further

In 2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers, of the National Football League, did a great service to youth athletes by sponsoring a concussion education symposium. Thanks to the team’s generous sponsorship, the symposium was completely free of charge for middle school and high school athletic trainers, coaches, and administrators. The program was mainly focused on football injuries and was conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Sports Medicine program. The goal was to train those adults closest to these injuries as they occur to recognize the symptoms of a concussion and learn the appropriate course of action to take in response.

This year came the exciting news that the Pittsburgh Steelers and UPMC Sports Medicine would be doing it again, but going a step farther. According to a press release from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2017 symposium aimed to help even more youth athletes by expanding the focus beyond football to “all sports.” Dr. Mickey Collins, Executive and Clinical Director of UPMC’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program, makes clear the positive impact that this symposium can have: “It’s not very often that you get to talk to the gatekeepers to this injury, and the fact we’re talking to athletic trainers and coaches, they’re a very important audience,” said Collins. “I’m pretty confident we’ll be successful. Our whole treatment team will be talking, and it’s going to provide the right information to the correct people. We’re going to show people that there are different types of concussions and that there are different treatments for these different types of concussions, and when you match the right treatment to the right problem we have good outcomes. That’s what will be shared at this symposium.”

As part of the effort to go beyond football and address the issue of serious head injuries in “all sports,” UPMC Sports Medicine extended invitations to its youth hockey and youth baseball partners. But this year’s symposium missed out on its greatest potential impact by not making outreach efforts to sports that are more popular with female athletes, and soccer in particular.

That’s because, as reported by Women’s Sports Safety Initiative, studies have repeatedly found that female youth athletes actually experience concussions at higher rates than male youth athletes. And a recent study, presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons by Wellington Hsu, MD and professor of orthopaedics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, confirmed what earlier studies had suggested: girls who play soccer face a greater risk of concussion than boys who play football.

This information comes as a surprise to most people, which is precisely why educational outreach is necessary. A survey commissioned by the Women’s Sports Safety Initiative and conducted by Harris Poll in September of 2016 found that among the people questioned,

  • 65% were not aware that concussions affect males and females differently
  • 79% were not aware that males do not suffer a higher rate of concussions than females in similar sports
  • 41% mistakenly believed males actually suffer from a higher rate of concussion than females

How many middle school and high school athletic trainers, coaches, and administrators are aware of the elevated risks that their female athletes face? This symposium would have been the perfect forum to educate those adults who are in the best position to make immediate decisions affecting the well-being of youth athletes about the risk that girls face in sports. As Dr. Collins says, “We have to fight a lot of misinformation out there. There’s just a lot of misinformation. There’s a lot of information being shared that isn’t necessarily what we see in our research. It’s a continual process to get the correct information out there.” And one dangerous piece of misinformation that needs to be addressed for the safety of our youth is the mistaken belief that girls participating in youth sports are not at risk for concussions in the same way that boys are.

“It is clear that our female student-athletes, their families, doctors, trainers, and coaches need better guidelines to help them recognize, and manage, concussions,” says Former California Assembly Member Mary Hayashi, an outspoken advocate for women’s health who is leading the effort to reduce the risk female youth athletes face from head injuries in sports through research, education, and policy initiatives. The important educational outreach effort on concussions in youth athletics, conducted by UPMC Sports Medicine and generously funded by the Pittsburgh Steelers, would be an ideal venue to increase awareness of the risks that young female athletes face. Ignorance of these risks makes it more likely that these female athletes will suffer from long-term negative consequences that are avoidable, because coaches and trainers are not watching for symptoms in the same way they do for boys’ football, and administrators are not allocating resources and setting policies appropriately.

Expanding this year’s symposium beyond a narrow focus on football was definitely a laudable step forward. But meeting the goal of addressing concussions in “all sports” will require UPMC Sports Medicine in future symposiums to not only make a greater effort to include coaches and trainers from sports popular with female youth athletes, but to directly address the differences in head injuries between males and females.

Attendees of the symposium, like Deer Lakes youth football president James Aller, as quoted in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, were there “to learn the most up-to-date information about concussions.” Hopefully, future symposiums will include the findings of the latest research about the differences in how concussions affect males and females. That would be yet another step forward that would have a positive impact on the long-term health of youth athletes.

Sources:

Gree, Will. Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks at UPMC concussion symposium. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved April 7, 2017 from
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/steelers/2017/04/07/Dale-Earnhardt-Jr-UPMC-concussion-symposium-high-schoo-coaches-Heinz-Field-steelers-Mickey-Collins/stories/201704070064?pgpageversion=pgevoke

Labriola, Bob. Concussion Symposium set for Heinz Field. April 5, 2017. Retrieved from
http://m.steelers.com/news/labriola-on/article-1/Concussion-Symposium-set-for-Heinz-Field/5cbc43fa-0979-4bb2-8678-598767277122

Nationwide Children’s Hospital. RIO™: Reporting Information Online. Retrieved March 23, 2017, from http://www.nationwidechildrens.org/cirp-rio

Women’s Sports Safety Initiative. Sports Related Concussions: Changing the game for women and sports. Retrieved March 6, 2017, from
https://womenssportssafety.com/wp-content/uploads/WSSI-Report-FINAL.pdf

Women’s Sports Safety Initiative. Sports-Related Concussion Resource Guide. Retrieved March 23, 2017, from
https://womenssportssafety.com/sports-related-womens-concussion-resource-guide/

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