Recent national attention on the potential long-term impacts of head injuries has local medical professionals launching their own studies and …
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Recent national attention on the potential long-term impacts of
head injuries has local medical professionals launching their own
studies and researching the best treatment options.
Head injuries, particularly concussions, are a given in contact
sports, and when the recreation season is year-round, like it is in
Colorado, hospitals see a steady stream of patients with varying
degrees of injury. Concussions have made headlines in recent years
as professional hockey and football leagues are eyeing new measures
to protect players who take repeated hits.
Brain scans on retired National Football League players have
revealed significant damage and can sometimes look like a
late-stage Alzheimer’s patient. The death of actress Natasha
Richardson after she hit her head in a skiing accident brought the
topic to the forefront again and had many people raising questions
on what symptoms to look for and how to best treat a head
But data on teen head injuries and the affects on the brain is
scarce. Dr. Sue Kirelik, director of pediatrics at Sky Ridge
Medical Center, noticed the glaring absence of research and proven
methods to manage teens who show symptoms of a concussion. After
looking into it, she realized that she and other doctors were not
up to speed on the most effective treatments.
“I went and started to look at the literature in detail and
found these newer recommendations that nobody knew about,” Kirelik
said. “I realized we weren’t doing things the right way at
She decided to launch a new program in 2008 aimed at tracking
teen athletes who sustain multiple head traumas via before and
after scans. Kirelik is especially passionate about raising
awareness about second impact syndrome, a rare but often fatal
medical condition in which two head injuries occur within a short
period of time.
“The thing we’re concerned about is if the brain’s not fully
recovered, you might be very vulnerable if you get hit again,” she
said. “We don’t want to put those kids back in the game if we know
their brain isn’t fully functional.”
The Jantz family knows firsthand the pain that can be caused by
such a little-known condition. Jake Jantz, a freshman football
player at Grandview High School, died in 2004 after collapsing on
the field before a snap. He had sustained repeated blows to the
head and exhibited symptoms, including tingling in his hands, after
a taking a hit to the head about a week before he died. Jake did
not return to the game, but was back on the playing field within
days. He would have turned 20 years old April 19.
His mother, Kelli, hopes coaches, parents, trainers and even the
athletes themselves can learn the indicators of a head injury and
heed the warning signs.
“I want everybody to pay attention because we all have a role
and responsibility,” she said. “There is always a big push to be
tough and excel, but sometimes it comes at a huge price.”
Local schools are now getting involved, and Kirelik has
established a relationship with the Douglas County School
District’s head of student wellness, Dr. Paulette Joswick, to try
and track the impacts of head injuries. Douglas County schools now
conduct basic neuropsychological tests on freshman and juniors in
higher-risk sports to determine possible changes in cognitive
function or learning ability after a head injury.
With permission from the patient, the Douglas County School
District has access to medical tests and scans from Sky Ridge, but
because of stringent student privacy rules, the flow of information
does not go the other way yet, Kirelik said.
“No one has tracked these kids for a long period of time,” she
said. “We want to see if an injury in second grade affects their
learning abilities later.”
Roughly 95 percent of those with head injuries fully recover
with limited activity and plenty of rest, but permanent damage in
others can sometimes show up later in the form of emotional issues
and cognitive deficiencies.
The Colorado High School Activities Association recently
approved a new set of guidelines that require a medical provider’s
note for an athlete to get back into a game after a head injury.
Kirelik is also hoping coaches and parents look into the REAP
Program, which is a how-to guide for recognizing symptoms and
determining the best course of action for treatment.
“Our goal is to have everyone develop a clear understanding of
how to recognize a head injury and how to treat it so our kids are
safe,” Kirelik said.
Kelli Jantz applauded the move by CHSAA and said raising
awareness could prevent another death on the sports field. Her son
was only 14 when he died, and she is using the tragedy as a lesson
“We certainly don’t blame anyone for his death, but want to make
sure people know that there can be consequences to these types of
injuries,” Jantz said. “Jake suffered the ultimate
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