Erlanger Neurology Conference: Can football survive the head trauma epidemic?

In 2006, a 13-year-old star football player, Zachery Lystedt, made an impressive tackle during his last junior high football game. During the play, the back of his head slammed against the ground. Zachery lay on the turf, holding both sides of his head, but he was still conscious. So, after a 15-minute rest on the sidelines, he was put back in the game. He seemed fine.

During the game’s second half, Zachery continued to make a great deal of contact with other players. The game ended. But Zachery wasn’t standing anymore.

That’s when Zachery’s father realized his son couldn’t stand up.

Zachery was airlifted, unconscious, to a nearby hospital, suffering from a series of strokes and seizures on the way. Both sides of his skull were removed to relieve the pressure of his swelling brain. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury that started with that first blow, which caused a concussion — then worsened with every tackle, every block, every fall to the ground.

The Lystedt family traded afternoon football drills and Friday night games for a life of comas, nursing homes, wheelchairs, physical therapy sessions, and the severe debilitation of their only child.

Years later, showing the same perseverance that he showed on the football field, Zachery Lystedt has dedicated his life to educating the public on the dangers of concussions, specifically those sustained in sports.

And that’s exactly what The Erlanger Southeast Regional Stroke Center aimed to do with its First Annual Neurology Update & Review Conference.  

On Friday, May 19, 2015, a panel of experts from Erlanger and allied institutions gathered at The Chattanoogan Hotel to offer insight and answers surrounding the conference’s theme, “Can football survive the head trauma epidemic?”

Although physicians and trainers believe that athlete safety is better than ever, concussions have steadily risen in the last decade. But there isn’t a clear explanation as to why. Leading experts are scrambling to find answers and make sports safer for athletes — especially younger athletes who are more susceptible to concussions and the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma.

One reason for the head trauma epidemic may be that our athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. Mix that with games involving constant collisions between these bigger, stronger, faster athletes, and you have a recipe for potential disaster. Younger athletes, in particular, may not have the neck and upper body strength to endure the force of these collisions — nor have they necessarily developed proper techniques.

And although helmet technology has considerably advanced over the years, the strength of that technology has turned a protective shield into a powerful weapon against opponents.

To address the growing concerns of a concussion’s long-term effects on an athlete, Boston University School of Medicine’s Dr. Thor Stein, MD, PhD, delivered the conference’s keynote address, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in Football and Other Contact Sports.”

As one of the world’s leading research and clinical neuropathologists, Dr. Stein explained that CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain found in patients with a history of repetitive brain trauma — the effects of which range from severe mood disorders to cognitive degeneration and beyond.

Dr. Stein reiterated that this epidemic is one that both the sports and medical worlds have to pay more attention to in order to not only save brains, but lives.

So, it’s serious. But, what exactly is a concussion?

Any time brain function is disturbed due to a blow to the head, it is considered a mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), or concussion. Although the term MTBI contains the word “mild,” doctors at the Erlanger Neurology Conference wanted to make clear there is nothing “mild” about a concussion.

While there are common symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, and confusion, the doctors stressed that every case of concussion is individual to the patient and should be treated as such.  

Depending on where, how, with what force, etc., the blow occurred, an athlete’s symptoms can vary.

Depending on the athlete’s genetic disposition, gender, health history, previous concussions, etc., the treatment and symptoms can differ.

So, what should happen when an athlete receives a blow to the head?

Erlanger Sports Medicine expert Dr. Bill Moore Smith, MD, emphasized that not every head injury is a concussion, so not every athlete has to sit out or be rushed to the emergency room.

When proper precautions are taken by coaches, the athlete who suffered a blow to the head will immediately be taken out of play. An athletic trainer or other certified health care professional will assess the injury with a Child-SCAT3 (for children 5–12 years of age) or SCAT3 guide, which also includes information for coaches and parents. And because a certified health care professional is the only person who can clear an athlete for play, Dr. Smith stressed the importance of every team having one on the sidelines.

Depending on the severity of the injury, the best option is to seek the professional help of an expert familiar with the ever-changing diagnosis and treatment of sports-related head injuries.

With the potential dangers associated with sports-related head trauma, should football survive the head trauma epidemic?

Drs. Smith and Stein, along with other physicians, responded with an emphatic “yes!” The benefits of football and other athletics still outweigh the risks. Benefits include:

  • Improved physical health
  • The importance of teamwork
  • Better self-esteem
  • Stronger relationships with peers, adults, and family
  • A desire to help the community
  • A greater probability of avoiding unsafe behavior
  • Self-control, personal responsibility, and self-discipline
  • The ability to deal with and accept loss
  • Perseverance

The list goes on.

And Chattanooga’s local coaches agreed. A few of them remarked how appreciative they were for experts acknowledging the importance of team sports and trying to make them safer through research and education. That was one of many successes at the Erlanger Southeast Regional Stroke Center’s First Annual Neurology Update & Review Conference.

And although head trauma experts have years of research ahead of them to fully understand how to treat brain injury, they all conclude that football can be made safer by:

  • Shortening the kick-off
  • Slowing the game down
  • Preventing high-impact collisions
  • Fitting helmets better
  • Teaching proper techniques
  • Educating administration, coaches, parents, and athletes

Until then, it’s up to the community to make sure our athletes feel safe enough to speak up after suffering a head injury.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, visit the Erlanger Sports and Health Institute or call 423-778-3390.


The Lystedt Law: A Concussion Survivor’s Journey
Part Three – The Zachery Lystedt Youth Sport Concussion Law: Meet Zachery Lystedt [Video]