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Photographs taken Sept 18 2012 during senior football practice at St. Michael's College School in Toronto. The school performs baseline tests on all athletes taking part in extracurricular sports. If there's any suspicion of concussions, they take another baseline test to see if there is indeed any brain injury. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Photographs taken Sept 18 2012 during senior football practice at St. Michael's College School in Toronto. The school performs baseline tests on all athletes taking part in extracurricular sports. If there's any suspicion of concussions, they take another baseline test to see if there is indeed any brain injury. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Head injuries provide for an unsettling year in sports Add to ...

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

As a volunteer trainer for her 14-year-old daughter’s rep hockey team, Beth Fleming has submerged herself in the ever-expanding pool of concussion research and head injury management protocols, and tried to spread the word.

MORE FROM THE GLOBE'S NEXT SERIES

Last year, she felt her efforts to increase concussion awareness were shrugged off by some parents, and even ignored by a coach when she advised a player be benched after showing concussion symptoms. But after a spate of grim news about head injuries in sport in 2012, Fleming is now detecting a growing sense of dread at the rink.

“I know parents are getting nervous,” say Fleming, a mother of three who lives in Georgetown, Ont.

From the recent release of the world’s largest study on the long-term effects of multiple hits to the head, to a divisive debate in Calgary over whether to allow bodychecking in peewee hockey, it’s been an unsettling year with regard to head injuries in sports.

The stories have included the high-profile suicides of NFL linebackers Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend before taking his own life. Those deaths were quickly viewed through the lens of concussions and head injuries.

Next year promises to bring further developments as researchers work to advance the field concussion science. Those findings are sure to influence what happens on the playing field, as parents, coaches and sport administrators struggle to make sports safer.

“We need to figure out more about how and why brain injuries happen, so we can protect our youth who are playing sports. And we want to make sure that they continue to play safely,” says Anne McKee, a researcher at Boston University who has led much of the research into the long-term consequences of repetitive hits to the head in sports.

In professional sport, the tide is turning toward litigation. Thousands of former professional football players are seeking to sue the NFL, arguing that the league should be found liable for the long-term health matters caused by the head trauma suffered on the field; the league has asked U.S. federal court to refer the issue to arbitration. The outcome could potentially cripple the NFL financially, and have a trickle-down effect as schools, universities and youth sport leagues calculate the burden of similar lawsuits.

As it is, a small but growing number of schools boards are taking steps in concussion management by attempting to implement programs that help student athletes return to the classroom after suffering head injuries.

Researchers say that while there is much work to be done in the area of head injuries, parents should not despair.

“There’s no brain trauma that’s good brain trauma. But let’s not get paranoid about it, we’re all going to take some,” said Robert Cantu, a leading researcher at Boston University program that is studying the long-term effects of concussion.

Parents should not be left with the conclusion that the best thing to do is rip their kids out of sport, says Lauren Sergio, a researcher at York University.

“When I give a talk to parents, my final message is, please don’t take this as a message to pull your kid from sport, because the benefit of sport is so much greater than the small chance [of getting a serious head injury],” Sergio said. “The most important thing is: we’ve got awareness now.”

DEVELOPMENTS TO EXPECT IN 20131. New consensus statement on concussion in sports

The most up-to-date consensus paper on what the world’s leading researchers currently know about concussions in sport is set to be released this spring.

The basis for the statement happened in November, when the world’s leading concussion researchers gathered in Zurich, Switzerland, to present and discuss the latest research on concussion prevention, management and treatment. Based on those findings, a consensus statement will update the guidelines which were published after the last International Conference on Concussion in Sport in Zurich four years ago.

The newest statement will act as a foundation for doctors, researchers, trainers and coaches from the grassroots level to the pros. Written for laymen as well as experts, the wide-ranging document looks at what is currently known about the condition, as well as areas in need of attention in the future. Brian Benson, a University of Calgary researcher who attended the conference, said some of the big issues to be tackled at the 2012 conference were fundamental ones: What is the best way to diagnose a concussion? How do you know if a player has healed? How does returning to the classroom affect a student athlete’s recovery? Does gender play a role in risk of injury and recovery outcomes?

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