Why Concussion Risks are Higher for Women

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director
and Ann-Marie Sedor, HeadFirst Concussion Care Marketing

A number of research articles suggest that women are more susceptible to mild Traumatic Brain Injury. In fact, female college athletes have a higher rate of concussion compared to males when playing soccer (2.1 x greater risk), softball versus baseball (up to 3.2 x greater risk), and basketball (up to 1.7 x greater risk). So, why the difference? Research and anecdotal evidence has turned up three possible reasons: cultural differences; hormonal differences, or physiological differences.

female_concussion

Canada forward Christine Sinclair (right) and USA midfielder Carli Lloyd head the ball during the 2016 CONCACAF women’s Olympic soccer tournament at BBVA Compass Stadium in Huston, Texas, on February 21. Soccer is also among those sports programs that produce a large share of concussions for female athletes. — Reuters

Some experts have said part of the reason for increased concussions in females may be due to the reporting rate — that women are more likely than men to notify a coach they are injured, whether due to a head injury or other concern. Cultural differences indeed indicate a reluctance among males to report any injuries for fear of being removed from play. However, because of the very nature of concussion being a clinical diagnosis that usually depends on self reporting, it is hard to say that the incidence differences between the genders is due to honesty.

Other research suggests that hormones including estrogen, oxytocin, progesterone, and testosterone, affect recovery times from concussion. Of course, men and women have vastly differing levels of these hormones. One published study from the University of Rochester (NY) has also shown that menstrual cycles play a part in healing from head trauma. The research showed that women in child-bearing years experience greater cognitive decline, delayed reaction times, extended periods of depression, more headaches, and longer hospital stays and return-to-work plans compared to men following head injury.

Other articles suggest that longer and weaker necks of female athletes influence the potential for greater cervical injury and flexibility of the cervical ligaments. During a 2013 Youth Sports Safety Summit presentation, recent findings from athletic trainers showed neck strength and rigidity could help lower the chance of concussion. For every one pound increase in neck strength, odds of brain injury fell by 5 percent. Consequently, some the nation’s foremost authorities on concussion suggest female athletes participate in daily neck strengthening exercises.

Other research suggest that there are different neuronal connections between the hemispheres and significant lobes within the cerebral cortex for men and women potentially influencing recovery time. A recent Georgetown University Medical Center study showed that mice with a single head injury temporarily lose 10 to 15 percent of the neuronal connections in their brains, which can be repaired when at least a week of rest is provided. The fact that male and female brains are “wired” differently could account for a higher incidence of and/or a longer healing period after brain injury in women.

Realistically, interplay of all of these factors could potentially influence the differences in concussions between the number of concussions of female athletes and their recovery.

Be Cautious of New Products or Research That Promise to Prevent or Heal Concussions

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

Periodically when I’m seeing patients in our HeadFirst concussion clinics, parents will ask me about a different brain trauma-related studies that they’ve heard about. These questions range from studies about concussion-healing chocolate milk to eye tracking devices to the effectiveness of helmets and different sports bands preventing head injuries. Presently, NO concussion treatments have been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Likewise, the FDA has yet to approve of any devices that prevent concussions in the first place. No helmets, no mouth guards, no sports band or other piece of technology in any way shape or form has been demonstrated to completely prevent concussions.

I typically advise parents to be extremely cautious with new research or technology, or with the promises of concussion treatment. Instead, parents should seek out a concussion specialist who has years of experience treating these injuries and utilizes multiple methods in their assessment, diagnosis, and treatment planning.

Refreshing Delicious Chocolate Milk

Can chocolate milk heal concussions? Don’t count on it.

Concussion Awareness Spreads with News Headlines

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

Regardless of age and profession, motor vehicle accidents and falls are the most common ways that people can sustain traumatic brain injuries. Even first responders – police, fire, and ambulance crews – regularly go into harm’s way and risk personal injury that includes concussions, as recently happened when two firefighters in New Jersey slipped while jumping off their fire engine at a house fire.

firefighter_injuries_600x300x

Even firefighters and other first responders are vulnerable to concussions (Photo: AP/Wide World)

Although sports like football, soccer, and lacrosse get a majority of the press about head traumas and traumatic brain injuries, most of the traumatic brain injuries that we see in HeadFirst Concussion clinics are due to everyday events such as slips and falls and motor vehicle accidents.

Some doctors tell me that the “concussion craze” is going to burn out soon. However, I think the way concussion specialists and medical providers diagnosis and treat traumatic brain injuries will continue to evolve. Other clinicians believe that education, evaluation and treatment of mTBIs will continue to grow in different directions.

Some considerations for the future may include:
– people who carry weapons, work with hazardous materials, or are employed in high-risk jobs could require baseline neurocognitive testing with their employment physical in the event they suffer a brain injury
– schoolchildren of all ages, including the elementary school level, may receive education, baseline testing, while training may be required for all parents and coaches about traumatic brain injuries (it is presently only required for high school kids)
– employers may insist employees to get baseline neurocognitive testing prior as a condition of employment

What we have found in HeadFirst Concussion clinics is that 60-70% of mTBIs are not sports related and more than 95% of our injured patients have not had baseline neurocognitive testing. While concussions continue to make the news and diagnosis increase as public awareness spreads, we encourage people of all ages to schedule a baseline neurocognitive test.

Significant Head Trauma Can Occur with Repeated Hits, Not Just Concussions

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

CTE’s connection to football has been in the news for five years now, with a debate centered around whether the number of concussions will affect long-term health and well-being of those playing the sport. Likewise, I’m constantly asked by patients and parents what the future effect of this or future concussions will be on their health. A recent study released by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine (such as Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Ann McKee, Chris Nowinski and others) will probably give moms and dads across America a moment of pause before starting a collision sport like football or hockey.

An answer may lie in a concept developed by these researchers called the Cumulative Head Impact Index (CHII). They found individuals who had more hits to their heads—regardless of whether they had a concussion or not, were significantly (i.e., not even close…a large statistic margin) more likely to experience later-life cognitive problems, apathy and depression. The caution here is that the sample size was only 93 individuals and the exposure was only to football.

Helmet-Warning-Label

A football helmet’s health warning sticker is pictured between a U.S. flag and the number 55, in memory of former NFL player Junior Seau; new research suggests that the accumulation of subconcussive hits may have more significant long-term effects than concussions. (© Mike Blake / Reuters/REUTERS)

The next step is for medical providers and concussion specialists to help families begin to connect the dots throughout the developmental hurdles of a child’s life. For example, the health outcomes for two 7th grade beginning hockey players if they have a different history. One student may have fallen off a changing table as an infant and suffered a skull fracture, have been in a motor vehicle accident, and have fallen multiple times during winter sports, while the other 7th grader may not have suffered any head injuries or significant head trauma. Baseline neurocognitive testing like the ImPACT® test might look different on these two young students, and the outcome and recovery time of any current injuries sustained by each of them could be considerably different.

I’ve often said that kids can’t live in a bubble as much as parents are sometimes inclined to want to wrap their kids in bubble wrap. Young people—really, people of all ages—are going to be in car accidents, bike accidents, and slip and fall just going through life. Parents need to make their own unique, informed decision about how much additional risk of physical injury to which they want to expose their child, given his or her medical history and athletic abilities.

The Connection Between Concussions and Suicide

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

The topic of mild traumatic brain injury and/or concussion has been in the news for several years. The release of a major motion picture, a concussion sustained by a professional sports star, or the passage of a law tends to rekindle interest in the topic. Recently, another issue was linked to concussion — the concern of suicide. But, I am optimistic. Why? By nature, I’m an optimist, but I’m also hopeful that parents, community leaders and politicians will pay attention to the epidemic of suicide in our country.

When I worked in the U.S. Navy, one of my careers was serving as their Suicide Prevention Program Coordinator. Every death by suicide crossed my desk. The number of Marines and Sailors who attempted and completed suicide staggered me.

In our country, the number of people — servicemembers or civilian — who die by suicide is almost too much to comprehend. Compared to 16,000 homicides each year in the U.S., the number of suicides is nearly double that at almost 32,000 a year, most due to untreated depression of some form.

Let’s put those numbers in another perspective: In the last decade of our troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, just over 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice and almost 50,000 have been wounded. During that same time, more than 300,000 have died by suicide and more than 50,000 have been children between the ages of 14 and 24. The number of suicide attempts is in the millions.

Researchers are also finding out that some of the consequences of concussion are linked to depression and suicide. Untreated brain injuries can lead to devastating consequences.

My optimism lies in the hope that coaches, parents, athletes, and community leaders understand that the physiology of a concussion caused by a blow to the head or body prompts the neurons to function ineffectively due to a disruption of their normal chemical process.

I’m optimistic that these same parents, coaches, athletes, and community leaders will make the connection that the neurological process of a concussion is to depression. That these neurons which govern our emotions and self-esteem for a variety of different reasons — the death of a loved one, loss of a job, bankruptcy, medical conditions — can lead to a disruption of the neurons and cause depression leading to suicide.

I’m optimistic that the people who form every individual’s support system, from parents and teachers to friends and fellow athletes, will ACT if something seems amiss:
A — ask an individual if he or she is thinking about suicide
C — let him or her know you care about them
T — get the individual to treatment with someone who specializes in suicide evaluations: a counselor, pastor or chaplain, family doctor or pediatrician, psychologist, or psychiatrist or local emergency room

Concussion-Suicide-Risk-March-2016-900x900I’m optimistic that people will realize that depression can be considered the “common cold” of psychiatric conditions and has a variety of effective treatment options.

I’m optimistic that people will pass on the suicide prevention hotline number and website to those in crisis: 1-800-273-TALK and www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

And finally, I’m optimistic that people will pass this blog and information onto at least FIVE other people and in doing so, might just save a life.

“Concussion” Movie is Just the Beginning of the Brain Injury Conversation

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director
and Ann-Marie Sedor, HeadFirst Concussion Care Marketing

The much-anticipated movie “Concussion” is scheduled for release this year on Christmas Day, and already there is Oscar Award talk for Will Smith, who plays the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu. It was Dr. Omalu who discovered the tragic progressive degenerative effects of years of multiple concussions in NFL players, which he named CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

US-ENTERTAINMENT-SCREENING-CONCUSSION

Bennet Omalu, M.D., (L) and actor Will Smith attend the screening of the major motion film, “Concussion,” on November 23, 2015. (VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)

The film highlights the NFL’s initial response of anger and denial. Indeed, since Dr. Omalu’s discovery in 2002, the NFL has experienced lawsuits, exposés, and finger-pointing in general. Now, 13 years later, bystanders have watched the NFL’s reaction to this scientific research unfold in a manner not unlike many stages of grief – first denial, then anger, on to bargaining and, finally, acceptance. (Although, the League is still working on fully coming to terms with this last step.)

For their part, the NFL hasn’t had much reaction to the movie, preferring to keep the controversy at arm’s length. While Dr. Omalu has vocalized his opposition to children playing football until they are legally and emotionally old enough to understand the danger of putting their brains at risk, the NFL can’t afford to lose any of their reported $7+ billion in annual revenue.

Yet, while the debate rages on, two points are patently clear from years of scientific research: that children repeatedly hitting their heads during developmental years is potentially very harmful, and that college and professional football players can face significant health consequences from playing the sport.

But just how serious are families going to be about keeping their children from playing football? Indeed, this is just the beginning of the conversation about brain injuries.

As a community-based concussion clinic that has treated more than 30,000 traumatic brain injury patients over the past three years, HeadFirst Concussion Care has seen multiple reasons for why people sustain concussions. And while football is a violent sport, soccer, lacrosse and hockey also put our youth at risk for head trauma.

And again, this is just half of the dialogue. HeadFirst’s data shows that traumatic brain injuries sustained while playing organized sports with a concussion protocol in place (high school or college sports) account for a relatively small percentage of our patients. In fact, in as many as 80 percent of our patients, concussions are sustained by other mechanisms of injury. These include non-organized sports-related injuries (bike riding, skateboarding, trampolining, skiing, pick-up or other informal recreational games), slips and falls, motor vehicle accidents, and assaults.

The key message is that the people must understand that traumatic brain injuries can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Not just kids. Not just athletes. And certainly, not just NFL players. And since anyone is at risk, everyone must understand the proper protocols for healing an injured brain.

On a final note to end the year, my holiday wish is that families, schools, and employers begin to talk about head injuries and follow traumatic brain injury protocols to keep all children and adults safe.

When Is the Right Age for a Child to Specialize in a Sport?

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

How many times have you seen parents running their kids from one sporting event to the next? Parents and kids feel the pressure to stay on the best team, with the best trainer, and the best coach to continue to progress in their sport.

At what age should a child or teen begin to specialize in a sport? Should kids go the route of gymnastics and figure skating and focus exclusively at an early age or should specialization be held off until high school or college when bodies and minds begin to fully form and develop?

An excellent article on the Steve Nash Basketball Blog addresses these questions and more.

Sports-Kids

Having been in the military, I had the benefit of having my children participate in school systems and sports programs up and down th
e Eastern seaboard. School systems and sports programs are not all the same. The culture within these communities created by principals, athletic directors, teachers, coaches, athletes and parents were a direct result of their collective focus and values.

As a psychologist, what I have found interesting is that the value system of sports and athletics tends to mirror one another. Within one community, children are not cut from a sports team – all children up to 9th grade may be able to try out and play on any team without getting cut. In the same community, children may not receive letter grades – or “competitive grades” – until the 8th grade.

Elsewhere, however, I’ve seen children cut from teams and competing for spots as early as 1st grade, when they also begin receiving competitive letter grades.

As with many things, the trick is in finding the right balance. Children in 1st grade cognitively can’t keep score and focus on the tasks of what they need to do on the field. What does a “D” in reading really mean to a first grader? A summary letter grade is an abstract concept that doesn’t teach very young children that they need to read more to improve their proficiency. The same applies to sports. An older child can understand the causes and consequences of a low letter grade, be it in academics or sports. But is waiting until 9th grade to be cut from a team too long to teach the lesson that life is competitive?

Another factor to consider are that traumatic brain injuries (concussions) will interrupt an athlete’s season and training. The type of community a child is living in and the focus of the coach, parents, athletic trainers, administrators, and other adults working, training and living with these young athletes can affect treatment outcomes in case of a concussion. Is your community one that is fostering hyper-competition that is focused on the top one percent or does it focus on age-appropriate health and well-being of all its children and how they all can benefit from athletic competition?