Concussions Take a Terrible Toll on America's Young Athletes 

Thursday, Aug 18 2011

Karoline "Kari" Krumpholz was destined for water polo greatness. Her father, Kurt Krumpholz, a three-time All-American selection in men's water polo, was inducted into UCLA's Hall of Fame in 2008, the same year Kari's brother, J.W., won an Olympic silver medal with the U.S. water polo team.

As a sophomore at Foothill High School in Orange County, Krumpholz and her water polo team won the 2007 California Southern Section Division I Championship. Following a star-studded career that included numerous athletic honors, she accepted a scholarship at UCLA.

During a UCLA practice in February, Krumpholz was defending "one of the strongest girls on the team" when she got clocked between the eyes by her teammate's elbow. She thought her nose was broken, but upon further examination, a student trainer said she was fine. As a precaution, the trainer made her skip the rest of practice.

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However, Krumpholz wasn't doing so well the next day. "I went to class and I knew something was wrong," she recalls. "I couldn't focus and I felt out of my body. I am a really good student, so for that to happen, I knew something wasn't right."

That day, a doctor diagnosed her with a concussion. Five months later, between nearly daily visits to various UCLA physicians, as well as Orange County's Migraine & Headache Center, she's still experiencing symptoms.

To Krumpholz's knowledge, this was the first concussion she'd suffered. "But since I've been having so many problems, one doctor said that it's possible that I had undiagnosed concussions in the past," she says.

If and when her symptoms clear, Krumpholz, a sophomore majoring in psychology, sounds doubtful that she'll return to the water.

"It would be scary for me to play again because my brain is really important to me and I have plans for graduate school," she says. "Once I am cleared, I'm going to have to really examine if I'm willing to take that risk."

Across the country, people have awakened to the sometimes irreversible damage of concussions, especially in high-impact professional sports. With much of the attention focused on the National Football and National Hockey leagues, Village Voice Media conducted a nationwide investigation into the consequences of concussion on youth athletes. We found the following:

• The effect of a concussion on kids can be much more devastating than on adults. Doctors say that until a person reaches his early to mid 20s, his brain is not fully developed and can't take the same level of trauma as an adult brain can.

• Postmortem analysis, the only sure way to measure the effects of concussions, shows that repeated blows to the head may be linked with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and a number of other fatal diseases.

• An athlete who doesn't exhibit headaches, dizziness, vomiting, temporary amnesia or other outward signs of concussions still can experience changes in brain activity similar to those in a player who has been clinically diagnosed with a concussion.

• The ImPACT test, widely regarded as the go-to neurological exam to measure concussive blows, doesn't always accurately gauge a player's readiness to return to action. And you can cheat on it.

• Thus far in 2011, 20 state governments and the District of Columbia have signed concussion legislation that prohibits an athlete from returning to play until cleared by a licensed physician. To date, 28 states have concussion laws in place. (California, however, does not.)

As attorneys debate how the new concussion laws will play out, parents are struggling with a growing awareness that if they push their children to be standouts in athletics — sometimes the key to a better future — the cost might be irreversible damage.

Is the risk worth it?

The answer is "no" for NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. The former UCLA star says that on the basis of his own concussion episodes, he will never allow his kids to play a contact sport.

For Ali Champness, it was a freak ball kicked into her face by her own goalie in practice that turned her life upside down. The 14-year-old freshman, who'd already made junior varsity at Garces Memorial, a Catholic high school in Bakersfield, told her parents the sting went away after a while.

Yet, two days later, on the way to a game, Champness complained of a headache and dizziness, says her mother, Kim Champness. During play that day, the ball was kicked in the air and "brushed across the front of [Ali's] face," Kim recalls. "It was not a hard hit at all, but right after that, she started stuttering."

Champness saw a doctor, who discovered more serious problems.

In the past, a "bell ringer" was thought of the same way as a cut or a sprained ankle, with no lasting side effects.

"Ninety percent of concussions went undiagnosed," Chris Nowinski of the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute tells Village Voice Media. "In fact, today you can talk to an athlete and ask the amount of concussions they've had and give them the actual definition, and that number will increase."

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