Not long ago, people called it “getting your bell wrung.” Today, it goes by a more scientific classification — a concussion.
Elon University’s exercise science department held its annual Elon BrainCARE Symposium in Moseley’s McKinnon Hall Feb. 25. Elon BrainCARE’s mission statement underscores the emphasis placed on concussion research and education.
“Elon BrainCARE’s purpose is to conduct assessments, research and provide education to the student-athlete and supporting communities on the impact a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury may have on personal well-being on the playing field as well as the classroom,” the mission statement reads.
Moderated by Caroline Ketcham, associate professor and chair of Elon’s department of exercise science, the event was comprised of presentations delivered by visiting academics in the field of neuroscience, and was followed by a poster session dedicated to the findings of eight Elon students’ studies.
The Mayo Clinic, a Minnesota-based health facility ranked No. 1 in more specialties than any other hospital in the United States, defines a concussion as “a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions. Effects are usually temporary but can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination.”
Concussions are a developing hot topic in athletics, most infamously associated with football and the National Football League.
Two specific NFL-related incidents brought the neurological issues associated with concussions to the forefront of public medical attention.
On Feb. 17, 2011, Dave Duerson, a decorated NFL safety whose career spanned from 1983 to 1993, fatally shot himself in the chest. In a text message sent to family, Duerson said that he wanted his brain studied at the Boston University School of Medicine, a trailblazer in the study of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease.
On May 2, 2012, legendary San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in the exact manner of Duerson. While Seau never left a note with such specific postmortem instructions, it was posthumously discovered he too had CTE.
In both cases, family and friends said the players were suffering from intense levels of stress, anxiety and paranoia before their deaths, symptoms typical of those with CTE. Further, the retired players became short-tempered, succumbed to new vices like drinking and gambling and ultimately withdrew themselves from the presence of loved ones.
Event speaker. Mike Petrizzi, clinical professor to the department of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, noted CTE in his discourse, but said he focuses his studies on the effects of concussions in amateur athletes.
“You won’t see CTE in a 19- year-old. That’s a condition typical to veteran NFL players and is usually diagnosed years after retirement,” Petrizzi said. “I am interested in issues at the high school and collegiate levels.”
Petrizzi shared a handful of statistics pertaining to concussions in amateur American athletes. Annually, 45 million kids play sports in the United States, and between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related concussions are diagnosed within that demographic. He also said that roughly 900 athletes will die annually from their neurological trauma.
Still in stages of relative infancy in terms of the number of documented, clinical studies conducted, modern and comprehensive concussion research regularly yields never before seen findings. Visiting speaker Robert Lynall, a graduate student in human movement science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, touched upon one of the emerging discoveries of concussion research.
“We are learning that concussions lead to an irregular gait, particularly in the first few months after sustaining the injury,” Lynall said. “We can see from research of retired NFL players that those with three or more concussions showed markedly higher rates of osteoarthritis development as opposed to those who suffered fewer or none at all, and those cases are likely a result of irregular gait due to said concussions.”
While he continues to study concussions as a scientist, much of Petrizzi’s focus is on educating health professionals that come in contact with athletes that have sustained a concussion. He believes collaboration between the various peoples of influence will yield improved treatment and recovery.
“There are the three places where concussion treatment takes place—on the sideline, in the office post-event, and in the office when the athlete ‘returns to learn, to return to play’. These interactions may be conducted by different professionals, and it is important that each communicates and supports each other so that the athlete receives the best care possible.”
Student-athlete senior Ike Nwokeji plays football for the university, and is no stranger to concussion education. Having played since 6th grade, Nwokeji is well-versed in recognizing the symptoms of a concussion.
“In middle school, they weren’t such a big deal. I think our coaches just felt that we were too small and not moving fast enough to deliver a real big hit,” Nwokeji said. “Still, my school always made me take a baseline test, so I took those every year I played.”
The test Nwokeji is referring to is called the ImPACT test, one that uses shapes, colors, letters and words in combination with mental agility and memory exercises.
After taking a pre-season baseline test, an athlete suspected of suffering a concussion can take the test and compare results. If the results are markedly off, it is safe to assume the athlete is concussed.
Nwokeji says the same test he used before college football is also used at Elon. He also feels that the trainers and other authorities at Elon are vigilant for signs of concussions in the school’s athletes.
“Our trainer Michelle Krischel does a great job monitoring us. I play offensive line, so it’s hard to see big hits, or they’re just not as noticeable,” Nwokeji said. “But for a running back or a quarterback, where a big hit is really easy to see, she’s all over it. Anyone that takes a noticeably big hit is immediately pulled from play and evaluated on the sidelines.”
Given Ike’s testimony, it appears Elon’s Athletic Department takes modern approaches to concussion testing and treatment seriously, unlike the days of old when players around the country were told to “gut it out.”
The visiting presenters at the Symposium would be proud of Ike’s perspective on why playing with a concussion is not acceptable.
“In the long run, you’re just hurting yourself. Every guy on the team knows that, and it’s just not worth it.”