By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday more effort is needed to prevent concussions in young athletes, including greater awareness of the severity of head injuries, which are too often dismissed as headaches instead of serious brain trauma.
Obama, speaking at a White House conference highlighting the risks of concussions to young athletes, called for more research, improved safety equipment and better protocols.
"We've got to have every parent and coach and teacher recognize the signs of concussions, and we need more athletes to understand how important it is to do what we can to prevent injuries - and to admit them when they do have them," he said.
"We have to change that culture that says, 'You suck it up'" and play through the pain, Obama said.
Brain injuries, long a concern for the military, are increasingly receiving attention in sports leagues, not only among professional athletes but also youth players. Concerns have spread beyond violent contact sports such as football and hockey to soccer and even cheerleading.
As many as 250,000 youths each year are treated in hospitals for sports-related concussions and other injuries, according to the latest figures from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has launched its own campaign on the issue.
The event at the White House, peppered with former athletes, representatives of major U.S. sports leagues and health experts, aimed to use Obama's office to draw attention to avoiding and treating sports-related head injuries.
Concussions often first appear with headache-like symptoms and can cause memory problems, confusion, nausea and dizziness, and repeated concussions can cause longer-term problems. Researchers are increasingly looking at repeated minor injuries, not just major head blows.
Players of all ages are often still reluctant to admit to their symptoms or stop playing.
Obama was introduced by Victoria Bellucci, a Maryland teenager who suffered a concussion after "heading" a soccer ball.
"Thinking it was only a headache, I played in the game the very next day, a mistake many players make," she said.
Many U.S. states have passed laws in recent years aimed at overhauling school guidelines for student athletes and preventing injured players from returning too soon. Some U.S. lawmakers are also tackling the issue, targeting companies that falsely market sports products as able to prevent concussions.
While rain in Washington halted plans for a safety demonstration on the White House lawn, experts speaking inside urged parents to encourage activity but remain cautious.
Obama, a sports enthusiast and father of two daughters, said the aim is not for people to stop playing sports but to be aware of the signs and symptoms of concussions and take precautions.
"Sports are vital to this country and it's a responsibility for us to make sure young, talented kids ... are able to participate as safely as possible," he said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Bill Trott and Steve Orlofsky)