How to Mismanage a Child’s Concussion

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

Lots of myths and misinformation exist about how parents and coaches can supervise the recovery of a child’s concussion. Some of the most common ones stem from advice that was given years ago. But better understanding of brain injuries and new imaging technology has changed how concussions are treated. Here’s what NOT to do when managing your child’s injury.

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1  — Waking Every Hour or Two
Decades ago, healthcare providers encouraged parents to wake up their concussed children frequently to monitor their mental status. However, with modern imaging and clinical evaluations, patients who have been cleared by a concussion specialist can sleep soundly. In fact, remaining asleep 12, 15 or even 20 hours following a head injury is actually helpful, restful, and promotes faster recovery.

2 — Return to the Game Too Soon
Most concussion laws in every state have a provision in which a child is removed from play when a concussion is suspected and can only be cleared to return by a concussion specialist. Unfortunately, clinicians will periodically encounter an overly ambitious parent wanting to return his or her child to play prior to making a full recovery from the concussion. Depending on the timing, this can be exceedingly dangerous. If it is too soon, the child may be in danger of secondary impact syndrome, which can be fatal.

3 — Keep Away from Friends and Electronic Devices
Socialization is an important part of adolescent development. Keeping a child completely isolated from friends and electronic devices can lead to a sense of isolation, and in some cases, even depression. Providers and parents need to be mindful of balancing remediation with a young person’s sensitive self-esteem.

4 — Promote Completely Inactivity and Darkened Rooms
Although some rest is thought to be useful from 48 to 72 hours after the head injury, extensive rest and inactivity in a dark room is actually thought to do more harm than good. The brain can actually have more difficulty to returning to normal activity following an extensive period of inactivity.

HBO’s Real Sports Features Concussion Crisis in Youth Football Players

Over the past three years, 17 high school football players have died after sustaining head injuries while playing. A similar situation in the NFL would have caused a national uproar, so how has this been allowed to happen to our youth?

Take a look at trailer for this riveting episode of HBO’s series Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which is airing several times on HBO through mid-December 2016, as well as On Demand. The episode as a whole explores why there are such inconsistencies in protecting professional athletes versus the youngest players.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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

by 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).

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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.

Research Shows Students’ Academics Affected by Concussions

A recent study published in American Academy of Pediatrics June 2015 Pediatrics (published online on May 11, 2015) looked at concussion and its effect on academic performance. The research included a sample of 349 students, ages 5 to 18, who sustained a concussion and whose parents reported post-injury academic concerns on school questionnaires. The type and intensity of the students’ concussion symptoms were measured as an indicator of the severity of their injury.

Researchers found that actively symptomatic students and their parents had heightened concerns over the effects of the students’ concussions on their school performance, as well as increased school-related problems than their recovered peers. In other words, the students’ level of post-concussion symptoms had a direct relationship to the extent of academic effects.

Eighty-eight percent of students with symptoms reported school problems due to headaches, fatigue and concentration issues, while 77 percent reported issues such as needing to spend more time on homework, difficulty taking notes, and studying.

confused_student

Additionally, high school students in the study who had not yet recovered reported significantly more adverse academic effects than their younger counterparts. The greater the severity of their concussion symptoms was also associated with more school-related problems and worse academic effects, regardless of time since injury.

Every state has concussion legislation generally requiring three basic criteria in the event of a concussion:

  • The removal of a child from play
  • A structured return to learn
  • Clearance from a concussion specialist

However, most youth aren’t athletic professionals and many of them do not advance to participate in college and professional athletics. Currently, only Nebraska and Virginia have return-to-learn legislation indicating that concussed athletes may need specific informal or formal accommodations at school and that school personnel should be trained in concussions. In light of students’ limited number of years of sports and because of recent proven research, legislation should be in place in every state to provide more extensive accommodations after a brain injury so that students’ academics are not adversely affected.

To review each state’s legislation, please visit:
http://lawatlas.org/query?dataset=sc-reboot
http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/traumatic-brain-injury-legislation.aspx

Is Discussion About Concussions in Youth Soccer Being “Gagged” by Officials at the Highest Level of the Sport?

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

A recent story out of Louisville, Ky., is that US Youth Soccer is trying to “gag” its state officials from having public conversations about concussions in their sport. US Youth Soccer is the largest member of the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body for soccer in the United States, and has 3 million registered players between ages five and 19.

Unfortunately, leaders of US Youth Soccer have declined to discuss why the organization issued a memo encouraging soccer leaders not to talk to the media both generally and specifically concerning upcoming concussion stories. However, a statement on their website says they are not trying to ‘muzzle’ their membership but instead to create one singular communication channel to avoid inaccurate or conflicting information.

The president of the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association President said the request came from the United States Soccer Federation, their parent organization, and was sent out as a precaution because of the pending lawsuit filed in California that seeks only to change playing rules rather than monetary damages.

Soccer officials at the state level aren’t buying it. Oliver Barber, a lawyer who is chairman of the Kentucky Soccer Referee Association and a volunteer coach was quoted as saying “I don’t like US Youth Soccer telling us not to address such an important issue. We have a whole lot more work to do to keep players safe.”

Like many sports today, soccer administrators at all levels of the sport, including youth, high school, college, Olympic and pro, are experiencing pressure from parents, athletes, referees, and the community to address the issue of concussions. Over the past year or so, soccer officials have been struggling with rule changes such as whether or not to let players head the ball under the age of 14. Two of the top proponents of avoiding ball heading at a young age include former U.S. international soccer star and World Cup champion Brandi Chastain and Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading expert on head trauma in sports and a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine.

Girl Heading Soccer Ball - 2

A number of studies have shown that soccer players have developed CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and experience cognitive changes from frequent heading of the ball. The damage occurs, not as a result of a single concussive injury (although these injuries also occur in soccer), but as a number of cumulative hits in which the brain moves. These hits are called subconcussive trauma, and while scientists don’t have a handle on the defined threshold before injury appears, there is clear evidence in their research that heading the ball over time produces structural changes which can be observed in neuroimaging.

As soccer administrators in the United States continue to formulate rule changes to protect our children and protect the integrity of the game, parents can and should continue to be their child’s best advocate with regards to safety.

Parents can:

Honoring Brain Injury Awareness Month

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

Since HeadFirst Sports Injury and Concussion Care launched just three years ago, we’ve already seen the tide turn about the public’s understanding of concussion (mild Traumatic Brain Injury or mTBI). We’ve gone from hearing “It’s a only a mild concussion,” and “You just got your bell rung a bit,” to an acknowledgment of the severity of this silent injury.

Locally here in the Capital region, HeadFirst has been extremely active in hosting educational seminars for coaches and parents, and participating in dozens of community outreach programs.

In 2014 alone, HeadFirst’s team of professionals participated in more than 80 community events reaching more than 180,000 people. These events included partnerships and sponsorships with the Brain Injury Association of Maryland, Hockey for Heroes (benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project, USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program and Disable Veterans of America), Sports Legacy Institute, Touchdown Club of Annapolis, as well as educational seminars for school and county recreational coaches and athletic directors, presentations for school nurses on concussions and mental health, and attendance at community health fairs.

These groups have welcomed our educators with open arms to help their coaches and athletic trainers understand the right protocol in managing a suspected head injury, from those critical first moments to long-term treatment for proper healing.

Our outreach programs are one of our cornerstones, we’d like to think they’ve helped change the traditional way of thinking about concussions.

HeadFirst is also a gathering point for professionals from around the region to share their expertise. Our monthly Concussion Consortium pulls together physicians, neurologists, neuropsychologists, physical and vision therapists, and other specialists, school administrators and nurses, athletic trainers and coaches, who discuss scientific research and resources for concussion treatment and protocols.

The Consortium often hosts a respected guest speaker who shares information about specific topics and issues related to concussion. Next week, we’re welcoming Sarah Loeffler, LCSW-C, of The Neuropsychiatry Program at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, Md., who will discuss mTBI’s connection to anxiety and depression.

Also next week, HeadFirst Chief Executive Officer Robert G. Graw, Jr., M.D., and HeadFirst Program Director Tony Doran, Psy.D., are presenting their lecture, An Integrated Community Model for Concussion: Update, at the Brain Injury Association of Maryland’s annual conference.

Of course, all of this is in addition to our 11 clinics throughout the DC-Baltimore region, which is our reason for existence. From the thousands of neurocognitive ImPACT® tests we’ve administered to the patients for whom we have cared, we’ve heard amazing, heartfelt stories of the trials of living with a concussion and the willpower to overcome it. These serve as our inspiration to push ever forward.

brain-injury-awareness-month

We continue to read emotional articles in the news about concussion awareness, including yesterday’s announcement of San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire due to the high potential of long-term brain injury from playing. Turning away from a lucrative career in the name of your health surely must be one of the most incredibly difficult decisions to make, and we applaud this young man for having the guts to make this choice.

HeadFirst Sports Injury and Concussion Care is proud to honor March’s designation as Brain Injury Awareness Month, as well as Brain Injury Awareness Day today, March 18. Looking back, it’s been a fulfilling journey, albeit a short one. The starting line is still in our sights and we know the finish line is a long way off—and very likely will continue to move even as we do.

Concussions can and do happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. The non-discriminatory nature of this injury is what continues to motivate us to do our work.

What’s Missing in Youth Concussion Laws

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

A recent Fox Sports article discusses the youth concussion laws that have passed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but it also highlights some key elements that were missed.

Over the past five years, each state has modeled their laws after the State of Washington law in 2009, also known as “The Zackery Lystedt Law” after a high school athlete who suffered a life-changing concussion (pictured below, pre-injury and today, with his father).Zackery-Lystedt

Unfortunately, only 21 states have implemented all four key components of Washington’s law, which is considered the gold standard by many professionals:

1. REMOVAL FROM PLAY
This is pretty basic. The science and medical reasons for asking a child or athlete to leave a game or practice when a concussion is suspected is in place so a second and potentially more dangerous concussion does not occur. As of today’s writing, neither Illinois nor Wyoming requires the removal of an athlete from play in such a scenario. Arizona and South Carolina allow an athlete to return to play the same day if cleared by a physician.

When a child is suspected of having a concussion, it is a good idea to at least wait 24 to 48 hours after the injury to ensure that symptoms do not develop. Here at HeadFirst, as many as 40% of our patients develop symptoms one to two days after their injury.

2. EDUCATION
Fortunately, this is not as opposed as it was just three or four years ago. Coaches now realize the importance of receiving education about how to evaluate and treat a head injury. New York law requires not only coaches but also nurses, athletic trainers, and teachers to receive training on concussion and concussion management.

But New York is the exception and there are many states that don’t require education about concussion. Researchers and scientists also still need to do much in this area. Studies have not been completed on what coaches and athletic trainers know prior to training and what type of training is effective.

3. PARENTAL CONSENT
This is quite a basic component of the law which requires student athletes and parents to sign an informed consent stating they understand the dangers of the sport and that a concussion or traumatic brain injury is one of the risks involved in the sport.

4. MEDICAL CLEARANCE
Only 30 states have this element as part of their laws requiring clearance by a trained concussion healthcare provider prior to injured athletes’ return to play. Many laws and training programs also do not specify what training a concussion specialist needs or requires.

Even though these elements are a good first step, they’re still not enough to protect our children. A carefully designed return-to-learn plan is just as important in concussion recovery since academic demands can slow brain healing. Unfortunately, only two states—Nebraska and Virginia—have return-to-learn elements within their concussion guidelines. These procedures require a school to be notified if a student has sustained a concussion and then to give that student accommodations due to the injury.

Some states have even made unsuccessful attempts to add supplementary requirements to their concussion laws.

Oklahoma tried to add a section to their law that would mandate suspensions and punishments on coaches and athletic trainers who didn’t follow concussion guidelines.

Massachusetts attempted to add required neurocognitive baseline testing for all high school students.

And, Maryland tried to add a requirement of helmet sensors on high schoolers’ helmets before basic scientific research had been completed on the sensors or the meaning of a positive or negative sensor result.

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A number research studies continue to suggest the negative effects of alcohol (and other recreational drug use) after brain injury.

Alcohol is a neurotoxin — meaning alcohol kills brain cells — exacerbating the effects of a concussion. There is no recommended safe amount of alcohol or recreational drug use after a concussion. Even moderate amounts of alcohol for people with a concussion have been associated with increased deficits in memory, attention and balance.

Additionally, heavy pre-injury alcohol consumption is associated with poorer health outcomes and substance abuse post-injury. Many concussion patients report they are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol after injury. Even a small amount of alcohol after a concussion can impair judgment and increase the risk of a fall (and subsequent head injury).