Pop Warner safety changes 'very positive' says Phoenix brain doc

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- With unprecedented changes in its guidelines regarding children's football practices, Pop Warner has become the first national youth sports organization put concussion prevention rules into practice.

Dr. Christina Kwasnica of Barrow Neurological Institute is pleased with Pop Warner's changes. One of the nation's foremost experts on neuro rehabilitation, she has seen firsthand the devastation of traumatic brain injuries like concussions.

Pop Warner, which is for kids between 5 and 14, already has caps on the amount of time its young athletes are allowed to practice -- two hours a day, three days per week.

With the new rules it's implementing, the organization is restricting what can be done and for how long during those practices.

Contact drilling like blocking, tackling and scrimmaging will be limited to 40 minutes per practice.

The second rule affects what happens during those contac drills. Full-speed head-on blocking and tackling from more than three yards apart will not be allowed. The only full-speed drills permitted are those in which the players approach each other at an angle -- not head to head.

"This is a very positive step from my perspective," Kwasnica said. "We know that we need to limit the exposure of kids to hits to the head …. For Pop Warner to go ahead and do this independently is a very positive step for taking care of our children."

Even with Pop Warner's new rules, concussion education for parents and young athletes is essential.

"The most important thing is educating yourself about the signs and symptoms of concussion," Kwasnica said. "I think the most important thing -- if you're going to play these sports -- is to understand what a concussion is so you don't play with an injury."

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that temporarily interferes with how the brain functions. Because concussion does not always involve loss of consciousness and the symptoms can be relatively mild, a person can have a concussion and not even realize it.

Recovery can take time, which means there is a risk of second impact syndrome, which is a second concussion before symptoms from the first have abated. That increases the risk of potentially deadly brain swelling.

The issue of concussion dangers has taken center stage in the arena of youth sports in recent years as doctors have learned more about the potential long-term effects on young brains. Doctors now believe the effect of repeated concussions -- even mild concussions -- is cumulative, resulting in serious long-term problems.

"The education efforts in the state are some of the best in the country," Dr. Javier Cárdenas, a neurologist at Barrow Neurological Institute, said in March. "Arizona has really pushed itself forward in terms of really mandating that education and requiring it of high-school athletes."

He and Kwasnica agree that there's no need for parents to pull their children out of contact sports like football. The key is making sure everybody is aware of the potential dangers and that children who might have suffered an injury report their symptoms and do not risk further injury.

"Players recognizing the signs and symptoms of concussion can prevent death and disability," Cárdenas said.