Sydney Cook remembers waking up in the hospital, with no recollection of how she got there. After watching a video with her mom sitting next to her, it became clear.
During a Wylie High School soccer game, Cook went up for a header against her opponent, was hit in the back of the head and pushed onto the ground. The impact had her landing on concrete that was directly next to the field, head first. Cook blacked out.
An estimated 1.6 to 3.8 million sports and recreation related concussions occur in the U.S. each year. Athletes, parents, coaches and sport fans are all too aware of these injuries, but they have become a more common and dangerous injury than most think.
According to a release by Blue Cross Blue Shield, concussion diagnoses in the United States from 2010 through 2015 spiked 71 percent for patients ages 10 through 19. The report acknowledges the fall as a peak concussion season, where there is a dramatic spike in diagnoses in male athletes. It also recognizes the increase could be due to a new awareness of the injury among doctors, athletic trainers and parents.
Although male athletes have more diagnoses, the rates rose more abruptly in females, increasing 118 percent. Some studies have shown that females are more likely than males to sustain a concussion and tend to have more symptoms and require more recovery time. For men, football is the most common concussion risk sport; soccer is for women.
Cook has had a total of five diagnosed concussions. Her worst sustained concussion kept her from engaging in sport contact for one month, and impacted her studies in the classroom.
“I missed finals,” Cook said. “I was out of school for a week and a half. Whenever I went back, I couldn’t do any homework or take any tests or do notes. I just physically had to be there.”
Director of Sports Medicine for Lubbock Independent School District, Ronnie Kirk, said there are many signs of a concussion.
“They may be nauseated and they may have double vision,” Kirk said. “They may be sensitive to noise or light. They just look and feel a little sluggish. Maybe like they’re in a fog. They have pressure on their head. They just can’t really describe how they are feeling and they may be emotional.”
Research suggests that for every concussion, an athlete is 1 to 2 times more likely for a second, 2 to 4 times more likely for a third, and 3 to 9 times more likely for a fourth.
However, it is not just the immediate effects that can impact an athlete, as long-term consequences from multiple concussions are common.
Stephen Kamp, a former collegiate football player, said he deals with the effects from his five sustained concussions on a daily basis. While only five were diagnosed, Kamp said he suffered more throughout his career.
“My short-term memory is pretty bad,” Kamp said. “If someone tells me to do something and I don’t do it right away, I’ll forget about it.”
While playing collegiate soccer at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, Cook had daily headaches. She described each one as a hammer constantly pounding on the inside of her head.
After discussing her symptoms with a neurologist, who ordered CAT scans, MRIs, baseline and balance tests to figure out the reason behind the headaches, she was prescribed Nortriptyline, a nerve pain medication and antidepressant, which Cook said is to back-cycle what her headaches do. Once on the medication, Cook realized it was time for her to quit the game she had loved playing the majority of her life.
But, she still deals with the lasting effects almost every day, even though the medication is supposed to help with the hammer-like pounding.
“When I get sick, I get headaches. When I get stressed out, I get headaches. When I get too exhausted, I get headaches. When the weather changes, I get headaches,” Cook said. “Certain things trigger off my headaches, it just depends on the day.”
Amy Cook is Sydney’s mother. She sees these effects in her daughter on a daily basis and said parents need to be alarmed early on.
“The standard of being concerned after three concussions – I would not say that is correct,” Amy said. “I would be concerned after one, and I would do what I could to ensure no further concussions happened.”
On medication, Sydney Cook said she gets around three headaches a week now, compared to the seemingly endless one she had before.
“It’s harder for me to focus and retain information,” she said. “If I’m reading something, I have to re-read it six times to actually know what I’m reading just because it’s harder for me to remember. When I read too much, I have to take a 15-minute break because my eyes shake and it hurts my head. It hasn’t ever affected me grade wise, just my studying techniques.”
Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, runs in the Cook family. With the amount of concussions Sydney Cook has sustained throughout the years, she is now more prone to getting the disease at some point in her life.
“I don’t really think about it,” Sydney Cook said. “I live life day by day because if I get Alzheimer’s, I’m just going to forget what my life was like. So since I can remember things now, I might as well live it up as best as possible.”
Kirk said treating concussions starts with awareness. Compared to years past, he said a better job is being done in educating parents, coaches and athletes about the signs and symptoms of concussions, which has led to more diagnoses because athletic trainers know what to look out for.
He also said every concussion is different and the younger an athlete is, the longer it takes to recover. For instance, a grade school or younger college athlete will need more time to recover than an adult.
“Some are more severe than others,” Kirk said. “If someone had two concussions where they were knocked unconscious, I would say that’s too many. But, if they just had a mild concussion where their signs and symptoms went away within a day, then those are not as severe… As their brain is developing when they are younger, it’s critical that they not have too many.”
Kirk said Lubbock ISD’s main concern is protecting the athletes and stresses the importance in educating all parties involved.
“We don’t want to get a second impact, and we don’t want to send someone back out there too soon,” Kirk said. “It just multiplies when they have a second impact. The younger you are, [the brain is] still developing. It’s extremely important that these guidelines are in place and we do these return-to-play protocols and bring people back slowly to make sure that their signs are completely gone.”
“It’s not worth getting injured and hurting your brain just to play a sport,” Sydney Cook said. “They’re fun, but your brain is going to take you further than a sport will.”