Archived Story

The impact of concussions

Published 9:06am Friday, July 5, 2013

By Griffin Pritchard

Editor’s note: This is part one of a special in-depth feature dealing with the increased awareness of concussion among athletes. The first installment discusses what a concussion is and symptoms of the injury.
Concussions have existed since before the first “slobberknocker” was delivered.  In the past five years, they have come to the forefront.
A concussion, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is “a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions. The effects are usually temporary but can include problems with headache, concentration, memory, judgement, balance and coordination.”
“It’s a brain bruise,” said Brent Vinson, facility director at Wetumpka’s Rehab Associates. “The brain gets bruised (suffers a contusion) when it bangs against the skull.”
The brain floats inside the skull. Think about putting a peeled grapefruit inside a Jello mold.
“It’s part of the body, so it’s resilient and can take a little, but the tissue is very sensitive,” said Vinson.
Concussions are common in contact sports. Football, in its design and function, is a contact sport. According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, high school athletes sustain an estimated 300,000 concussions per year.
A study by a former professional wrestler, Chris Nowinski, actually started the concussion discussion.
“I fought to bring this issue to the forefront because after investigating my concussion history and post-concussion syndrome under the guidance of Dr. Robert Cantu, I was shocked that athletes were not informed of the serious consequences of concussions,” said Nowinski, via email. “In the beginning, it was simply about raising awareness.”
A former Harvard football player and WWE professional wrestler, Nowinski was forced to retire following a series of concussions in 2003. He since moved on to serve as co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute and the co-director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“I am very excited about how far we’ve come in six short years,” said Nowinski. “Very few issues in public health have ever changed this quickly. However, we still have a long way to go before we can look ourselves in the mirror and say that we are handling the concussion crisis the right way.”
The work of the Sports Legacy Institute has triggered studies across the country.
“There are a lot of neurological centers throughout the country doing concussion and post-concussive studies,” said Vinson “A player who ‘got his bell rung’ getting up and going back in the game isn’t the case any more. They need medical clearance.”
Danny Horn, Benjamin Russell head football coach, said that risk of a concussion would always be present in the game of football, and he encourages his players to be forthcoming on the subject.
“Football is a contact sport, and some people can go their whole careers without getting a concussion,” Horn said. “But other times, you might get one or two in a season. They haven’t happened too much in my coaching career, but we’re always talking about it with the players. We tell the players that there are some injuries that you can suck up and others you can’t risk taking a chance on. If we have a player complaining of a headache or a head injury of any kind, we’re going to see about it.”
Lyman Ward head football coach Dwayne Thomas agreed with Horn’s assessment that communication is key.
“You hear of them happening so much across the board, whether it’s college football, the NFL or on the high school level,” Thomas said. “Because of that, our coaching staff is focused on educating the kids.”
While football has been the most prominent in the news, studies have also shown that soccer and cycling are also concussion-laden events. Cheerleading, too, is on the horizon as a sport where concussions and head injuries are prominent.
According to the Mayo Institute: “Concussions usually are caused by a blow to the head, but they can also occur when the head and upper body are violently shaken.”
Some injuries can cause a loss of consciousness, but most concussions do not. Because of this, some people have concussions and don’t realize it.
Vinson can speak to that, having suffered a concussion during a high school football game.
“I was at JD and we were playing Prattville. I took a lick to the head and don’t remember that game,” said Vinson. “I was watching the film and doing things that I didn’t remember doing. But that was a different time, we didn’t have trainers or people on the sidelines like we do now.”
The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2011 reported that U.S. high schools with at least one certified athletic trainer on staff found that concussions accounted for nearly 15 percent of all sports-related injuries reported to ATs and resulted in a a loss of at least one day of play.
Based on video games and highlight films, the view of the concussion – or any head injury, for that matter – stems from an “ooh-inspiring” collision that usually leaves one player standing and celebrating while the other is left clearing out the cobwebs.
As a result, concussions and head injuries are also the hardest to treat.
“It’s not like a knee or an ankle where you can look and see that there’s obviously something wrong,” said Vinson. “If it’s a grazing or a glancing blow, I will assess the athlete and let them play under my supervision. But if they are showing the slightest symptom of a mild concussion, then they have to have medical clearance by a physician.”
Pritchard is sports editor for the Wetumpka Herald. For the conclusion to this article, please see the weekend edition of The Outlook.