Tackling Concussions

Fifteen years ago, the mention of the word “concussion” meant little more than someone banging their head hard and laying low for a few days. Concussions were often misdiagnosed, symptoms were vague and treatment was loosely interpreted. “Getting your bell rung” or getting knocked out during a game was nearly seen as a badge of honor. It showed commitment, fearlessness and bravery. There were few medical warnings about concussions and those that did warn fell on deaf ears.

In fact, as early as 1933, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) warned college sports coaches that concussions were being treated too lightly. It recommended a player be under constant supervision and care for 48 hours and that players not be permitted to compete again for 21 days, or never again. In 1952, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine recommended players who receive three concussions leave sports permanently for their own safety. 20 years later, in the Journal of Neurosurgery, a condition called “Second Impact Syndrome” was identified. If a player sustains a concussion while still suffering from the effects of an earlier concussion, it carried a 90 percent mortality rate.

More than 80 years after the NCAA’s first warning, concussions are finally being recognized as significant, serious, and in their worst form, potentially life-threatening. It took a Nigerian-American physician, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist named Dr. Bennet Omalu, the tragic life of football player Mike Webster and the National Football League (NFL) admitting concussions lead to “long-term problems.” It even took actor Will Smith and a $34 million blockbuster movie, “Concussion,” to help bring concussions to the forefront of the American mind.

Dr. Omalu was the first to discover the protein in the brain that causes a degenerative brain disease called “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (CTE). CTE was the first direct link between traumatic head trauma and dementia later in life. Of the 91 former NFL players whose brains were studied post-mortem, 87 were diagnosed with CTE.

Sports are large culprits of concussions, so it is especially concerning for children. According to Youth Sports Safety Statistics, in 2012, more than 1.35 million children were seen in an emergency department for a sports-related injury. Specifically, with regard to traumatic brain injuries and concussions, emergency department visits doubled among 8-13 year olds between 1997 and 2007 and nearly tripled among older youth.

Dr. Johnathan Walker, a board certified neurologist and head of the Neurotherapy Center of Dallas, has been studying and researching neuroscience for 45 years. He says, contrary to popular medical opinion, CT scans and MRIs cannot diagnose a concussion. “CT scans and MRIs only show bleeding and tissue damage in the brain. Even with a significant concussion, there can be no bleeding or tearing.” In his practice, he uses a quantitative EEG, or brain wave scan, to diagnose concussions. “The brain is like a bowl full of jelly. When there is head injury, you hit one side of the head and the brain hits the skull, then it bounces back and hits the other side. You can actually have a significant concussion and have a normal neurological exam.”

Just like every other area of our body, the brain is electric. 100 billion nerve cells, called “neurons,” send messages to one another through electrical activity, like the wires in a computer. Information is gathered and transmitted throughout every area of the brain. When the head is injured and the brain is shaken loose and damaged, that electrical activity gets disrupted. Until the brain is healed, typically through rest for a few days, a concussion patient can struggle with symptoms such as headache, nausea, memory loss, confusion, dizziness, vomiting, ringing of the ears and loss of balance. In some severe concussion cases, these symptoms can last for longer periods of time, from several months to a year and even longer.

The Frisco Football League says it has already taken precautions to help players minimize injury. Matt Wargel, the vice president of football for the league, says there were a total of five concussions sustained by players last season. Mr. Wargel says heads up tackling and heads up blocking, two techniques that aim to remove the head from impact, have been implemented during the last six years. The league also follows the University Interscholastic League requirements that limit the amount of contact each player and team can have on a weekly basis. Athletic trainers are required to be at every game to be able to handle any injuries that may occur. Mr. Wargel says if a player does sustain a concussion, there is a return to play policy, including being screened and cleared by a medical doctor and completing a practice protocol to see if a player has cleared past concussion symptoms.

While football is doing its part of help players, it is still a risky game. One of the ways football players can reduce their chances of a traumatic brain injury is through better protective gear. Troy Horton, the CEO at Gridiron Technologies, says their line of helmets, manufactured by Xenith, use a special design and technology to help protect players. Mr. Horton says there is no such thing as a “concussion-proof helmet,” but advances in protective equipment are making the game safer. Mr. Horton, a Burrton, Kan., native, founded Gridiron Technologies with a passion for helping keep kids safer on the football field. Mr. Horton estimates he suffered close to two dozen concussions on the field, playing high school, college and semi-pro football.

Not all concussions are associated with sports. Just ask 12-year-old Sienna Lawson of Frisco. In October of 2015, Sienna and her family were attending a Halloween party. Playing with friends, Sienna was chased by her friend’s little brother into a dark room. Not knowing where she was in an unfamiliar house, she fell backwards and hit her head in an empty bathtub. The force of the initial impact was so strong, her head bounced up and she hit the bathtub a second time. “It was the worst pain I have ever felt,” she says. “Everything turned purple. I thought I would be sick and I was just screaming.” Her parents took her to the emergency room that evening.

Initially, doctors told Sienna’s parents she would be fine in a few days. Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, only to find Sienna’s symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, sleeplessness, double vision, balance issues, emotional disturbances and debilitating headaches, not getting any better. Sienna’s mom said they sought the help of multiple doctors, including pediatric neurologists and concussion specialists, to no avail. After months of seeing doctors, some started to recommend that Sienna was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder or even worse, seeking attention. Sienna eventually found a doctor that helped her look for answers. Through the use of medication and prism glasses, as well as occupational, visual and physical therapy, Sienna is finally beginning to feel better. She says the experience of seeing so many doctors who told her parents she was attention seeking was hurtful. “I know my body, and I knew something was wrong,” she shares. “Those doctors were not in my body and they could not feel what I was feeling.”

Frisco parents have a variety of options when it comes to keeping their young athletes and active kids safe. Knowing the symptoms and taking precautions can be the difference in life and death.

Lisa Dawson is a full-time working mom of three, a freelance writer and a Frisco resident.