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Seau's death raises questions about kids' concussions

Friday - 5/4/2012, 7:57am  ET

AP: 473fa5ac-12d2-48a2-8183-96eeaea607bb
In this July 28, 2007 file photo, New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau smiles during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass. Police say Seau died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Wednesday morning, May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The suicide of former NFL player Junior Seau is raising new questions about a possible link between concussions and long-term mental health.

Seau suffered numerous head injuries during his career and his death is giving renewed attention to the risk organized sports may pose to children.

There has been little research on whether head injuries can contribute to serious mental problems.

"There really isn't a clear picture of what happens with multiple injuries, and what happens with multiple injuries over time," says Dr. Chris Vaughan, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's National Medical Center.

Vaughan says children can experience mood shifts following a concussion, but notes it's often because injured kids don't feel well, have been pulled from athletics or may have problems focusing in school.

Since there are so many variables, and so much is still unknown, Vaughan urges all parents to err on the side of caution.

"Parents really need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the injury and know what to do following an injury to prevent additional harm," Vaughan says.

Additionally, if a child is hit with enough force for the head to move quickly, whether the force was to the body or directly to the head, look for signs and symptoms, says Vaughan. Those include dizziness, headaches, moving clumsily or having trouble following directions.

Vaughan says parents should pay attention to any changes in brain function after an injury and stresses that if anything indicates a concussion, the child needs to be evaluated by a medical professional

There is a smart phone app that provides information for parents on the specific signs to look for, including guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The app is available through iTunes and on Google Play.

The guidelines were drafted by a team of which Vaughan was a part. He says the guidelines underscore the need to get kids with suspected concussions off the field and evaluated as soon as possible. He says it's crucial they remain on the sidelines until a medical professional says they are well enough to return to play.

"The majority of negative effects of an injury happen right afterward," Vaughan says.

Vaughan says children "really increase their risk of additional injury and further consequences" when they return to contact sports and certain play activities too soon.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)