Concussions: Enough to make your head spinIn the past 20 years, traumatic brain injuries have shifted the landscape of sports – from the youth level to professional.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, South Washington County Bulletin
There’s so much chatter about concussions right now it’s enough to make your head spin.
In the past 20 years, traumatic brain injuries have shifted the landscape of sports – from the youth level to professional.
The Department of Neurological Surgery’s Brain Trauma Research Center (BTRC) at the University of Pittsburgh states over 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually in the United States, and the likelihood of suffering a concussion while playing a contact sport is estimated to be as high as 19 percent per year of play. More than 62,000 concussions are sustained each year in high-school contact sports, and among college football players, 34 percent have had one concussion and 20 percent suffered multiple concussions. Concussions often cause significant and sustained neuropsychological impairments in information-processing speed, problem solving, planning, and memory and the impairments worsen with multiple concussions, according to the University of Pittsburgh BTRC.
Last year Minnesota lawmakers passed a law that requires all coaches and officials working from the youngest ages through the high school level to be trained in the diagnosis and treatment of concussions. Every coach on staff at East Ridge, Park and Woodbury has to complete an online training course on concussions. Every official that works a game at the high school level has also completed similar training. Parents and students also must all sign off on an informational sheet provided by the MSHSL on concussions.
At East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools, athletes in contact sports (football, soccer, hockey, basketball and lacrosse) each must take a baseline test at the beginning of the season, and then if that student has a possible concussion during the season, they are brought in to re-test or “post-test.” The results help trainers and doctors determine if the athlete is ready to return to action.
Longtime Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel said he believes concussions are the No. 1 health issue in high school sports currently.
“It’s a huge deal. As a state, Minnesota has realized this is a big topic of concern,” Kuemmel said. “Keeping kids safe is obviously our No. 1 concern. We have two students at Park that are no longer able to play any contact sports whatsoever for the rest of their lives, because of the effects of concussions. When I hear things like that, it’s alarming of how serious of a problem it is and how much we need to do to keep our kids safe.”
Most of the recent focus has been on second-impact syndrome (SIS).
According to the University of Pittsburgh BTRC, second-impact syndrome was first coined by R.L. Saunders in in 1984. Saunders studied the death of a football player who died after a concussion and believed it was actually a second concussion that caused a catastrophic rise in intracranial pressure (ICP) that lead to the athletes’ death, because the brain was in a vulnerable state from an earlier concussion. Since then, at least 26 deaths have been attributed to SIS, 20 of them occurring in the past 10 years.
“We’re trying to prevent second-impact syndrome,” Park Athletic Trainer Leia Ritt said. “If an athlete suffers a second blow to the head after a first concussion hasn’t been completely resolved they risk more severe injury. A typical concussion-recovery time is days to weeks. If they suffer a second concussion before the first concussion has healed, we’re looking at weeks to months to never.”
The fear of long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries and second-impact syndrome has relegated a number of high-profile athletes to the sidelines – in some cases, permanently.
Olympic wrestler Jake Deitchler, a 2008 graduate of Anoka, recently stepped away from the University of Minnesota wrestling team because of multiple concussions that began at age 7. In the NHL, hockey superstar Sidney Crosby hasn’t played since Dec. 5, 2011, because of a recurrence of symptoms that sidelined him for more than 10 months a year ago. In baseball, concussions have ended the past two seasons for Minnesota Twins slugger and former MVP Justin Morneau. In football, 75 retired players sued the NFL last year, alleging the league knew since the 1920s of the harmful effects of concussions, but concealed them from players, coaches, trainers and the public until June 2010.
When in college, Ritt worked as an assistant trainer for her school’s football team for two years. She has kept in touch with athletes she worked with who had suffered repeated concussions and said 10 years later they are still having symptoms like headaches, problems focusing and loss of memory.
Ritt said she believes SIS plays a contributing factor in early deaths and personality disorders.
“The deaths and more severe head injuries we’re hearing about are the result of second-impact syndrome,” Ritt said. “Had the symptoms been reported earlier when they first had them they may have only missed a few practices or a game while it healed. That’s what we’re trying to prevent. We want to make sure that once the kids’ careers here are done and they graduate, they go on to live healthy, successful lives.”
Woodbury hockey team rocked by concussions
A number of athletes at East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools have been forced to sit out games or weeks, or have been sidelined for the entire year due to concussions.
The Woodbury girls hockey team has been hit particularly hard with concussions.
Clare Shaw, a Div. I prospect, has had her hockey career ended because of concussions. After suffering a concussion as a sophomore Shaw sat out her junior season. Getting ready for her senior year this past summer Shaw suffered another concussion and was advised to quit playing hockey. Woodbury head coach Shantel Rivard said Shaw would have been the team’s best player “by far.”
Also, current Woodbury junior goalie Emile Tappe has been sidelined for the year with concussions. Tappe started every game for the Royals last season as a sophomore. Her absence has forced the Royals to start sophomore Kaelan Geisser in the net this year, though she hadn’t had any previous varsity experience. Also, senior Casey White, the Royals’ starting soccer goalie, is the No. 1 goalie for the Woodbury junior varsity team this season even though she never played hockey before this winter.
In one instance this season, with Tappe and Geisser both out with a concussions, sophomore Mo Oien played goalie for the Royals although she had never played the position before. In the game, a 6-3 loss to East Ridge, Oien took over for the injured Geisser for a full period after Woodbury’s Molly Burke, a senior defender, took the net with just a blocker and glove for a portion of the second period. Oien has also stepped up and started for the Royals in a 13-2 loss to Mounds View.
“It’s been a big blow,” Rivard said. “It has been chaotic. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lives. This whole year has been completely different.”
In addition to Shaw and Tappe, Woodbury has had four other players miss games with concussions.
“It’s obviously not like it used to be. I don’t remember anyone every getting a concussion, though they obviously did,” said Rivard, who coached college hockey for 10 years prior to joining Woodbury. “As time goes on we’re learning more. People’s heads have gone to mush. It’s important. These are young people’s heads. Most of these athletes won’t go on to play professional sports or even college sports, so their brain is the most important thing. You have to do your due diligence. You only have one brain and you have to be cautious.”
Ritt, who has been the trainer at Park High School for the past seven years, said concussions – how to reduce them and how to treat them – are the hot topic in sports medicine right now. She said the majority of injuries she deals with are still muscular and skeletal injuries like sprains and strains. However, she said she has administered roughly 40 “post-tests” (tests after an athlete takes a hard hit or shows concussion-related symptoms) in fall and winter this year so far.
Park has been baseline testing and post-testing for concussion-related symptoms for four years.
“Each year we’ve seen an increase in the number of post-tests we’re giving, definitely,” Ritt said. “Before we had this testing, we had to go on self-reporting for the most part. We’d ask if they’re still having headaches, still having trouble at school, how have they been sleeping and are they eating ok. It’s hard to look at somebody and say if they have a concussion or not. This tool gives us a workout of their brain to see if their brain is back to 100 percent or still in the recovery phase.”
Kuemmel said he remembered an instance roughly 10 years ago when a hockey player chose not to go to the doctor when it was thought she had a concussion, because she didn’t want to miss games.
Kuemmel said that would never happen today.
“Sometimes you wonder about that. What’s the big difference between now and 10 years ago?,” Kuemmel said. “But, in this era I don’t think you can overdo it. Even if we are being over cautious, I think that’s better than getting to a point where athletes can’t function and can’t get through the day without vomiting and stuff like that. There’s enough that’s out there about athlete’s lives that have been drastically changed because of the effects of concussions.”
Kuemmel said in addition to the baseline and post-testing that Park, East Ridge and Woodbury are doing, the schools are also using the latest equipment to help prevent concussions. Kuemmel said Park has purchased new football, hockey and lacrosse helmets for its athletes, for example.
“There’s no such thing as a helmet that is concussion-proof, but we are using helmets that help reduce the shock to brain when the kids get hit. It’s more expensive, but we’re spending the money,” Kuemmel said. “We want to do everything we can to prevent concussions.”