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San Diego Doctor On How Sports-Caused Brain Trauma Affects Kids

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San Diego Doctor On How Sports-Caused Brain Trauma Affects Kids
GUEST:Alan Shahtaji, director, UC San Diego Health's Sports Concussion Clinic

The film "Concussion," heading to theaters on Christmas day, tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who first uncovered the disease now known as CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and his battle with the National Football League.

The catalyst for his discovery was his forensic examination into the death of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster in 2002.

The film has special resonance in San Diego because of the 2012 suicide of former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who had the same disease. CTE, previously known to occur mostly in boxers, is caused by repetitive brain trauma and includes memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment and impulse control, aggression, depression, and dementia.

In his practice at the UC San Diego Health Sports Concussion Clinic, Dr. Alan Shahtaji estimates he sees six to eight school-age children with concussions each week, about four of them new cases.

The questions Shahtaji and his colleagues confront every day include: How many concussions are too many? When can a soccer player safely head the ball? What rule changes in popular sports will protect young players? Can better equipment improve safety?

If kids want to to play Pop Warner, high school football or soccer — and their parents want to let them — these questions need answers.

Shahtaji said attention to concussions has changed professional football.

“Because of these outcomes, the NFL has really changed a lot,” Shahtaji told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. “Even legislatures are changing. It’s just filtering that down to those who are most vulnerable.”

Shahtaji said no concussions behave the same. For example, some people may experience headaches while others do not. Other symptoms can include vision changes, balance problems and emotional changes.