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Concussion Panel Focuses on Young Athletes

Tonight in Oakland is the first meeting of Northern California group led in part by Dr. Eric Freitag of Walnut Creek; ex-49er Ben Lynch tells story of his concussions.

By Danny Franks

Ben Lynch, a red-headed, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-4, former San Francisco 49er, walks with a noticeable limp. It's a battle wound he sustained over the course of his eight-year NFL career. But this isn't the damage from football that Lynch thinks about most.

"They call it the invisible injury for a reason," he said.

Concussions have been increasingly linked to harsh long-term health effects.

A new coalition in Northern California is hoping to catalyze a deeper discussion of concussion and brain injuries among athletes in high schools. It has a kickoff event this evening.

There will be advanced concussion training for parents, teachers and coaches on Tuesday, Aug. 21, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Skyline High School in Oakland. The event will have a panel of experts — including Lynch, Dr. Eric Freitag of the Mount Diablo Memory Center in Walnut Creek, and Dr. Cindy Chang of UC Berkeley, who was the chief medical officer for Team USA at the London Olympics. They will talk to the community about the latest in concussion science, advice, safety and warnings.

Degenerative disease

A recent study by the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Mass., for instance, found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in six out of six ex-NFL player's brains. Chronic traumatic encephephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative disease found in individuals with multiple head injuries.

Hoping to help the next generation of athletes, Lynch, Chang and Freitag are aiming to change the culture that surrounds concussions. Believing that legislation is falling short in concussion education, they are planning to make sure whole communities in the area get the most up-to-date information and educated about these traumatic injuries.

Chang, based at UC Berkeley, is one of the most renowned sports medicine physicians in the country and was chief medical officer for Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics. She was the Cal-Berkeley head team physician and has been working with concussions for more than 20 years.

Chang's interest in concussions started when she herself sustained one riding her bike at Ohio State University. Like many, she was insistent that nothing was wrong, and that she could return to work. After realizing she wasn't acting like herself, she was sidelined from work for a month.

"I was in huge denial," she said.

Dr. Chang knows that educating people is of utmost importance. After the passage of last year of Assembly Bill 25 in California, which requires students to be cleared by a health care professional after sustaining a concussion, the need for education and concussion awareness in the state seemed more pressing than ever.

The bill initially went in with clauses requiring that coaches and trainers take a course about concussions to ensure the safety of their players, but this clause was later removed. Multiple studies show that student-athletes are still underreporting their symptoms and paying the price.

Freitag, a neuropsychologist at the Mt. Diablo Memory Center in Walnut Creek, explained that multiple hits to the head cause the brain to bounce against the skull, damaging the brain. And while the evidence is still piling up and scientists can't definitively say they've made a direct link, it is becoming more apparent that these bruises, also known as concussions, may be linked to CTE.

Freitag explained that when the brain becomes damaged, the tissue is permanently changed. Eventually, this tissue accumulates a special kind of protein that becomes toxic to the brain, altering behavior. People with CTE tend to display symptoms of dementia, memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.

Initially Lynch, ex-NFL lineman, had figured that over the course of his career, he had never had a concussion. Then he read Head Games by Chris Nowinski. The book was one of the first to delve into what these concussions really are and ask the question, "Why is there still so little known?"

"After reading this book, I realized I had no idea what a concussion was," Lynch said. "I always thought you had to be knocked unconscious." Lynch surmised that he probably couldn't even count how many concussions that he had sustained in his career.

Lynch wanted to make a difference. So he made a personal sacrifice and joined the NFL brain bank program at Boston University, which allows athletes to donate their brains to science once they die. Scientists can study the brains and see how head injuries are influencing function and behavior.

"I figure I won't need it," Lynch said.

Lynch, Chang and Freitag are planning the first-ever California Concussion Coalition-Northern Chapter with the meeting in Oakland tonight referenced above. The new coalition mirrors the efforts of the Chicago Concussion Coalition, founded last year. The Chicago Coalition has been implementing talks and panels in school districts, educating whole communities about
concussions.

The coalitions operate in association with the Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit organization established by Nowinski. The group's goal is to make concussion education and awareness not just the responsibility of the athlete, parent, or coach entity, but the entire community.

"Instead of a PTA person coming to ask us to talk to one school, we want whole districts," Chang said. "We want a herd mentality, people [in the community] are clamoring for this."

"We are essential," Chang said.

Danny Franks is a student at Santa Clara University. He produced this piece as part of a journalism class taught by Sally Lehrman and as part of a collaborative project with Patch on science in Silicon Valley.

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