"It's hard to tell if the higher rate of reported head injuries with basketball represents a true increase in these injuries or just better reporting," says Dr. Jerris Hedges, professor and dean at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Hawaii. "The latter seems more likely, [though] the underlying message of concern remains true."
Goolsby, who played basketball in high school and college and now treats patients at her hospital's Women's Sports Medicine Center, says that more often than not, young basketball players experience sprains, especially of the ankle, or injuries to their fingers, not brain trauma.
"Concussions are infrequent with basketball players, but represent a significant concern when they do occur," Hedges says.
Not all head injuries are made equal, experts say, so it's important for parents, kids, and coaches to be able to recognize what's a concussion and what's just a bump on the head.
"Not all who suffer from a concussion will be 'knocked unconscious,'" Hedges says, so you have to look for symptoms of concussion such as slowed thought, headache, or confusion following an accident.
Often someone will experience amnesia and disorientation following a head trauma, but if this confusion gets progressively worse, Goolsby says, parents should seek an urgent medical evaluation for their child.
Vomiting, change in consciousness, and difficulty waking up would also be signs that a head injury should get checked out by a professional, she says.
Allowing proper rest and recovery time following a concussion is also key because insufficient recovery can leave kids more susceptible to another concussion and can prolong their symptoms, Goolsby warns.
"You need to minimize mental and physical activity while they're symptomatic and then once they've been completely symptom free for over 24 hours, you can begin a gradual progression back into activity," she says.
Returning to sports too soon, without a full recovery, may have complicated Popyer's condition and left her susceptible to her repeated concussions.
Her mother, Cathy Popyer, says that she was never told how long to wait after her daughter's injuries before she could return to activity, and so she was never given a full picture of how to handle her daughter's injuries.
"We went to all different doctors but nobody led us to believe that the concussions were cumulative or that she should concsider stopping playing at that point," she says.
Currently, most states do not have uniform guidelines about how long young athletes should refrain from playing following a head injury so often it is left up to the discretion of the doctor, parents, or coaches involved. Niki and her family now advocates for greater awareness of sports-related head injuries and how to treat them.
For the most up-to-date explanation of how to spot and treat a concussion, McKenzie recommends that parents and coaches take the free online concussion training at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website: http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/.