Get your head in the game: Concussion and kids

Rapid diagnosis & proper care can help young athletes bounce back, says U-M expert

Maggie McDonald

16-year-old soccer player Maggie McDonald is back in the game after a concussion last summer

Today, the White House hosted a summit on concussions in youth sports, drawing national attention to the importance of preventing and properly treating brain injuries in kids and teens.

Among the experts selected to take part: U-M concussion expert Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., head of the U-M NeuroSport clinic. He and his team focus solely on diagnosing and managing concussions and other brain and nerve issues in athletes of all levels.

Just hours before he left for Washington, he cleared yet another young concussion patient to return to the sport she loves. He says she’s a great example of how proper concussion care can help many patients get back in the game.

Maggie McDonald had just turned 16 last August when her world turned upside down – literally.

While playing in a soccer tournament, another player’s leg got under her feet, sending her flying. She landed head-first on the turf.

Maggie walked to the sidelines, feeling dizzy. A short while later, she got back on the field — but felt sick and came out again.

And that was the last soccer the Grand Haven High School honor student played for the year.

The sport she had loved since the age of 5, and played constantly with her twin sister Emma, was suddenly off-limits.

Maggie had suffered a concussion.

After weeks of battling fatigue, headaches and other symptoms, her parents drove her across the state to U-M’s NeuroSport clinic, to see Dr. Kutcher for a complete workup. He explained the science behind concussions and post-concussion syndrome, and mapped out a plan for recovery.

Maggie carries her twin Emma before a Grand Haven HS soccer game.

Maggie carries her twin Emma before a Grand Haven HS soccer game.

That plan even included a partial return to her beloved sport over the late winter and spring. Maggie could train with Emma and the rest of the varsity soccer team during their season, though games were still too risky because of the chance of another concussion while she was still healing.

Sitting on the sidelines as Grand Haven played its rivals was hard. But it gave her perspective, Maggie says.

“It builds your character, because you realize that sports aren’t everything, though you want to go back,” she reflects. “School is more important, and health is more important, than one sport. I’d never sat out before in my life, but that time off let me reevaluate what I want to do, and regain a passion for the sport.”

She even found herself educating other students about concussion and post-concussion syndrome, passing along what Dr. Kutcher had taught her: that every person reacts differently and needs individualized care as they recover.

She helped reassure other injured students that their symptoms, too, would get better over time.

And most important, says her father, John McDonald, she was able to keep up with her demanding school schedule – including Advanced Placement and honors classes. Her long hours of studying – and maybe a little rivalry with her twin — paid off with a 3.9 grade point average.

Still, when her follow-up visit with Dr. Kutcher arrived this week, Maggie wasn’t sure what to expect. So when he told her she was cleared to take part in some of her team’s last games of the season, it felt like a weight lifted off her shoulders.

“I about cried, I was so happy,” she said in the car driving home. “It’s such a relief because I didn’t know if I would be allowed to play again.”

Her dad praises the thorough care Maggie received – and the chance to get accurate information about concussion that cuts through the misinformation that swirls around the issue.

Jeff Kutcher, M.D.

Dr. Jeff Kutcher at the White House for the Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit

That misinformation, and the overly cautious approach that comes with it, may actually be making life worse for young athletes who suffer concussions, says Dr. Kutcher.

All the attention on the issue, focused mainly on the long-term impacts of multiple concussions suffered by professional athletes, had the unintended consequence of swinging the pendulum too far, he notes.

“With the right treatment, a young athlete can get through a concussion and continue with life – and the sport they love,” he says. “The important thing is for these patients to see a neurologist who has experience in managing concussion, rather than defaulting to a decision not to allow them to play.”

In fact, he notes, taking an avid young athlete away from their sport can do more harm than good, in a psychological sense.

“If you take someone entirely out of their regular life and strip away what defines them to themselves at this crucial age, you really could be shaping the rest of their life in a way that’s not healthy.”

Maggie and Emma McDonald

Maggie and Emma McDonald

Good diagnostic testing and immediate treatment for symptoms are crucial, he says – but so is building up a recovering athlete’s confidence while their symptoms ease.

Careful attention to symptoms, to distinguish the ones related to the concussion from normal everyday headaches, is also important.

This balanced approach can help athletes like Maggie get back in the game when it’s safe for them to do so.

And judging from Maggie’s eagerness to join her sister and other teammates on the field, that day has come for her.




Take the next step:

NeuroSport logoThe University of Michigan NeuroSport program is one of only a handful of comprehensive programs in the U.S. dedicated to the neurological concerns of athletes. By drawing on the resources in the U-M Health System as well as the rich athletic tradition of a historic NCAA program, it specializes in the treatment and prevention of neurological sports injuries, as well as the management of primary neurological diseases that affect athletic performance.


new_logos_180x1806For more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.