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Sports concussions are a concern

Samantha Tomarchio laces up skates to compete. John Hamilton wears shoulder pads and a helmet. Kerry Aldrich pulls on shin guards.

They are three very different young athletes &

ice dancer, football cornerback and soccer player &

who this year shared the same kind of painful injury. All three hit their heads hard during practice or a game and suffered a concussion.

When the brain is jolted inside the skull with enough force, it can cause mild brain damage that might leave long-term symptoms. A concussion can result from a major car accident or a minor fall on the playground. Concussions also occur in sports that millions of girls and boys in the United States participate in, including basketball, hockey, wrestling and cheerleading.

In recent years, researchers have learned that kids' brains might be at more risk for this injury than adults' and slower to heal afterward. Symptoms such as bad headaches and difficulty concentrating can sometimes last a month. Activity often makes them worse.

That's why doctors are starting to keep young athletes out of action for much longer after they have had a concussion. A special national project to reach school coaches has a fitting slogan: "It's better to miss one game than the whole season."

John, 14, of Washington, did miss his junior varsity team's first football game after he fell hard during a September workout. Almost immediately he experienced memory problems: Hours later, he couldn't tell his mother how he got home from his school. Weeks later, he still couldn't recall much about that day. "I remember up to third period" in school, he said.

Both Kerry and Samantha had ferocious headaches and more.

After being injured in a soccer scrimmage, 15-year-old Kerry would have to turn off all the lights and wear sunglasses to watch TV at her home in Vienna, Va. For days in class "I'd take notes," she said, "but I didn't know what they were."

Samantha, whose spill took place at her training rink in Laurel, Md., stayed dizzy even in her dreams. And she had trouble talking to friends. "I would just stop in the middle of the conversation because I didn't remember I was having one," the 16-year-old said. When she tried to return to the ice too soon, she couldn't follow any instructions.

John, Samantha and Kerry eventually were seen at a Rockville, Md., sports concussion clinic run by Children's Hospital. All three are back playing sports, and they know more about how their brains heal.

Gerard Gioia directs the clinic, which sees more than 500 kids each year. He educates parents, coaches and teachers as well as his young patients.

Whether an athlete is 7 or 17, a beginner or a champion, Gioia says the same thing: When it comes to a concussion, there's nothing heroic about playing injured &

and absolutely nothing smart.