Cracking Concussions: Part 2

Concussions really do make a lasting impact (pun totally intended) on an athlete’s long term function. In case you missed last week’s post about my own experience with concussion, check it out here.

In the event that you already caught Part 1 or just want to learn more about the impact of concussion, check out this blog honoring one of my first posts from this blog’s birthday, just in time (early this time!) for #throwbackthursday. Let’s face it, if I don’t post it today on Wednesday, I’m going to forget to post it. What are you doing to raise your or others’ awareness of concussion in your sport or your child’s sport?

youthsportspt

Concussion-Cartoon Photo credit: http://iphysioperth.com.au/news/sports-physiotherapy-for-common-athletics-injuries/

If you’re just picking up this post, you may have missed the story from Part 1 about my recent patient (Patient 1) who presented with a concussion. I discussed how without my recognition of his symptoms, he may have been misdiagnosed and/or mismanaged.

Mirror this case with another case of a high school athlete (Patient 2) I was treating at the exact same time of Patient 1. Patient 2 sustained a head injury when falling backward onto her head during a home plate collision during a softball game. Her father, a pediatric physician assistant, was on the scene and immediately recognized signs of a concussion. She was monitored and taken to a local emergency department. She followed up within a day or so with a pediatric primary care sports medicine physician, who recommended cognitive rest, a modified school schedule and program, and prompt referral to physical…

View original post 1,123 more words

National Cheerleading Safety Month: Why it Matters (Part 2)

Now that we’ve established cheerleading as a sport, why does it matter to sports medicine?

My point in painting this picture in Part 1 of cheerleading-as-a-sport is not because I want to see cheerleading in the Olympics. It has nothing to do with my former 6th grade dreams to become a cheerleader. There is the bigger issue. At the end of the day, as with all other sports, cheerleaders get injured. The more participants and complex skills that are required for participation, the more kids will get hurt.

Just as with any other athlete, we are all faced with having to understand cheerleading so that we can rehabilitate them back to their sport. Or better yet—prevent the injuries in the first place. Part of understanding a sport you’ve never done is taking the time to learn about it. So I’ve been to cheer practice, a competition, got the team t-shirt, and have been doing some bedtime reading. I’ve been completely out-tumbled by a 6 year old, too.

According to Shields & Smith (2009 and 2010), some of the most common injuries in cheerleaders (of any variety) are ankle injuries, knee injuries, and low back injuries. When humans have to lift other humans overhead, there is going to be a risk of falling. Either the lifter (known as the “base”) or liftee (known as the “flyer”) could be injured as a result of a flying human failure (that’s a technical term, by the way). Shields & Smith showed that up to 52% of all injuries in competitive cheerleading happen during stunts, up to 24% occur specifically to the base/spotter, 15% from tumbling and 14% from traumatic falls of the flyer. That’s a lot of flying human failure.

In addition to stunting and tumbling skills, the surface on which these athletes cheer may vary from grass to spring floor, resilite (foam) to hardwood floor. The same 2009 study mentioned above showed that 34% of competitive cheerleading injuries occurred on foam floor and 30% on spring floor. The diversity in competition/performance surface literally impacts an athlete’s ability to perform certain skills and has the potential to place undue strain on certain areas—putting them at greater risk for injury. A different study by the same researchers showed marked differences in risk for head injury in cheerleading stunts performed on various surfaces, with higher height of stunt and lower impact-absorbing surfaces leading to greater risk for injury.

Patients of mine have ranged from the competitive cheerleader with a traumatic ACL tear or ankle sprain, to the sideline cheerleader with a stress fracture in the back from improper base and tumbling mechanics. I’ve seen flyers who have fallen from a stunt with severe concussions. I wrote about concussion in cheerleading last month, and the CDC has some great educational information and athlete stories out to spread the word, too.

Last month I began working with a 15 year old high school cheerleader/tumbler who very eloquently told me the reason for her injury was “because I don’t tumble or base with the right form.” Not only was I impressed that a 15 year old identified the root of her problem, but she identified a risk factor that Shields & Smith (2009 and 2010) have shown to be the biggest predictor for injuries in bases. Remember how I mentioned in Part 1 how impressed I was with the University of Kentucky base body mechanics? I take notes for my patients. This is part of what we make sure our bases can do before they can return to cheerleading after injuries. Check out this photo of great base mechanics being taught in 4-6 year olds. Great coaching from an early age instills great injury prevention for the future.

Great body mechanics, coaching & spotting at Stingray All Stars (4-6 year olds) in Marietta, GA

Great body mechanics, coaching & spotting at Stingray All Stars (4-6 year olds) in Marietta, GA

So what do we do in PT? I find that generally for all cheerleaders, no matter what their position or role, the treatment plan mirrors the same plans that I use for gymnasts, divers, or even pole vaulters with similar injuries. The only difference is that for several sideline and all star cheerleaders, we also have to train the skill of avoiding flying human failures.

It is unfortunate to be injured, but fortunate when a young cheerleader ends up in physical therapy. I see it as a great educational, rehabilitative and prevention opportunity to keep a young athlete active and engaged in the sport he or she loves so that he or she can move into a healthy and active adulthood. I love a good challenge and love being creative with my PT skills to develop cheerleading-specific programs to help these young athletes get back to their sports.

I use some cool tools like Pilates apparatus and Redcord Neurac to design kid-friendly and cheer-specific exercises while educating on alignment, spinal mechanics, central stability, breathing mechanics, and all other “typical” concepts I teach to other tumbling and flying patients. If you want to read more about other “core” ideas I incorporate into my young tumbling and stunting athletes, visit this blog or check out this video from my PT colleague Julie Wiebe in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, many young and even collegiate level cheerleaders do not often make it to a medical provider. In fact, the same 15 year old I mentioned above was injured then immobilized for 6 weeks. That’s a long time to not move a body part, folks. Had her mother not brought it up in conversation with me one day, she would have returned to cheerleading without correcting the imbalances and poor mechanics that likely led to the injury in the first place. As I mentioned, even she knew her mechanics were an issue. They had to ask to be referred to physical therapy. It shouldn’t happen that way.

The disconnect in sports medicine: why cheerleaders don’t get the right care

Why is it that cheerleaders do not regularly receive medical attention? Due to the fact that several sport governing bodies like the NCAA, AAU and sports medicine governing bodies like the ACSM and NATA do not always recognize cheerleading as a sport, cheerleading does not receive money nor sanctions to create a standard set of rules and standards of medical care. It is not heavily researched, though several small groups of researchers have begun to explore this concept. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement on cheerleading. The STOP Sports Injuries campaign also has begun with cheerleading advocacy & safety campaigns.

Most cheerleading competitions are not held in traditional athletic venues; rather they may be held in large convention centers which may not be designed to support emergency medical needs. It is rare to hear of athletic trainers covering cheerleading events and competitions, or for a cheerleading squad to have their own team physician. Without recognition by national and/or international sports and sports medicine governing bodies, there is no requirement for standardization of safety and care.

Enter several of the national cheerleading safety organizations which have formed over the years. Some have been formed by parents who see the need for awareness and advocacy for their young athletes.  It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a start. See links to some major cheerleading safety organizations below:

American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA)

National Cheer Safety Foundation (NCSF)

United States All Star Federation (USASF)

These organizations are not necessarily unified. Each has different rules and standards for competition and performance and they have different governing “roles” for each type of cheerleading. The spread of leadership and rules contributes to confusion of “who’s in charge” and requires a very diverse skill set in coaches and in athletes.

As we move along the chain from national organizations into the various forms of more “local” cheerleading, including high school, middle school and recreational leagues-there is even less organization. Some school systems include cheerleading as a varsity sport, while others call it a “club.” In college, some schools offer varsity scholarships for competitive cheerleading, while at others it is not recognized as a varsity sport. The NCAA Injury Surveillance survey, an ongoing project chronicling incidence and risk factors for injuries in 16 collegiate sports does not include cheerleading in its study of collegiate sports. This means that these athletes may not be covered nor managed by the school’s athletic training and medical team. They may not be required to undergo preseason physicals or baseline concussion testing, two key injury prevention checkreins. At the end of the day—there is no standardization of rules and care. This leads to an overall problem of funding for research, prevention programs, and management.

In summary, without all of this information, people just don’t know the right way to handle cheerleaders. It’s a safety issue.

What do we do about this?

So what do we do about this? We have to change our language and understanding. There is no use in denying it as a sport. What does one gain from doing this? Does it make one feel like more of an athlete to say that someone else isn’t an athlete? A 2004 study showed that the Vo2 max, body composition, strength & endurance of collegiate cheerleaders rivals that of other collegiate athletes. They’re in shape, they are performing feats that require a high level of athletic skill, and they deserve the same wellness and prevention attention of other athletes. With the number of cheer-related concussions and injuries on the rise, it’s just not worth the risk of ignoring it at this point.

anna-watson-11

To be fair, the cheerleader on the right is a competitive body builder. Impressive! http://nationalconfidential.com/2014/02/anna-watson-photos/

The AACCA is one of several organizations offering a credentialing process for cheerleading coaches. While there are likely many non-credentialed skilled and talented coaches out there, it is generally accepted credentialing protects the consumer—in this case the athlete and family. It improves safety awareness, injury prevention/management, and standardization of coaching and level progression protocols. While there has been conflicting evidence to show the relationship between coaching credential and injuries, a 2004 study in North Carolina high school competitive cheerleaders showed a 40% decrease in cheerleading injuries when credentialed coaches were present. I am a firm believer that a credential does not guarantee skill. However, it does show a commitment to the betterment of a profession and a sport. Find a credentialed coach near you.

In the case of the young cheerleader, this is something that runs rampant on my caseload—and I blogged earlier this year about how am seeing injuries and early specialization in sports from increasingly younger ages. Some of that is parent-driven, as described in this post, but some of it is culture-driven. Early specialization leads to injuries. It’s a problem. But on the flip side-there has to be a balance. Our kids need to stay healthy and active, and sometimes early participation and specialization in a sport is a way to do that.

Ride the cheerleading safety and prevention wave with me! You just might get to wear a cool shirt like the one below and support one of the fastest-growing athletic activities for young athletes.

Disclaimer:

Out of respect for all sports, the comparisons made in this post were not meant to downplay or discount the hard work or dedication of athletes in any other sport or activity. In addition, this was not meant to be an exhaustive post about all factors which contribute to sports injuries in cheerleaders. Be on the lookout for future posts that highlight additional issues in these and other athletes. I welcome your feedback and thoughts for future ideas.

 

Rah! Rah! It’s National Cheerleading Safety Month! (Part 1)

Welcome to National Cheerleading Safety Month!

Wave your pom poms, do a few jumps and leaps, and get excited for this marvelous awareness campaign!

duke cheerleader

Photo credit: goduke.com

For anyone who knows me, you may wonder why in the world I’ve decided to blog about cheerleading safety. I’ve never been a cheerleader. In 6th grade when every single one of my female friends was signing up for recreational cheerleading—the penultimate way to become popular and gain friends in middle school—I was qualifying for travel swim meets to California and Orlando. I went to Disney on both coasts in one summer. Let me tell you, I really suffered at making friends. Regardless of that, I still felt a little left out at the time from this seeming rite-of-passage activity for many young ‘tweens. Nowadays we call this a #firstworldproblem.

So why do I care? Perhaps it’s because a friend of mine has a high-flying-tumbling-and-stunting fanatic 6 year old who can pull off some pretty fancy skills. Or maybe it’s the plethora of cheerleaders I have treated over the past few years for a plethora of injuries and problems. While I’ve learned there are many types of cheerleading, there always seems to be a common denominator among their injuries: no one definition for the sport, leading to no unified standards for safety, and subsequently increased risks for injury.

So let’s just start with one fact: Cheerleading is a Sport.

There. I said it. Did you agree with me? Roll your eyes or shudder at the thought of considering it a sport? Vehemently disagree? Still on the fence? If you answered yes to any of those, then please humor me and proceed.

By calling cheerleading a sport, it would imply that I’m lumping all types of cheerleading into the same category. Yes, I do realize there are differences. Keep reading.

The cheerleading “purists” out there might argue that sideline cheerleading is not the same as all star or competitive cheerleading. You may be thinking “well MY KID does the athletic type of cheerleading. Those other kids who stand on the sideline: that’s not a sport.” Some types of cheerleading require higher levels of athletic skill and teamwork than others. But for the sake of argument and keeping me from writing 4 separate blog posts, let’s just put them all together.

On the contrary, some cheer “haters” would throw out every excuse and argument in the book to support the “cheerleading is NOT a sport” campaign. Some have even blogged about it, asking “how dare cheerleaders compare themselves to LeBron James?” I’m not sure anyone is actually comparing cheerleading to LeBron, except perhaps the author of that post. That’s like apples and oranges. Both are fruit, yes, but there really is no comparison. Both cheerleaders and basketball players are athletes, yes, but comparing is futile. If I could figure out the reason anyone would spend his or her time arguing against cheerleading as a sport, I think it would solve the meaning to life. Did cheerleading wrong you in some way? Did it trip you in middle school or steal your lunch?

I’ve heard that girls (and guys!) who jump and clap for another sport are not, in fact, participating in their own sport. Who cares if the sport is in support of another sport? Take cheerleaders who cheer on football players, for example. They jump for 2-3 hours, dance, lift each other up overhead, tumble, and perhaps perform a well-choreographed routine for several minutes at halftime. A casual observation would see that some cheerleaders—even the sideline ones—do more on their feet than the 4th string benchwarmer. I’m not knocking the freshman who is anxiously waiting for play time, but I’m just sayin’…the cheerleader is burning more calories than you dude.

Let’s look at it another way. How great it is that two sports are put together for an overall end result of everyone-gets-a-workout and everyone-works-as-a-team? What a marvelous concept! You go to a football game and also get to watch cheerleading. That’s two-for-the-price-of-one, folks. And who doesn’t like a good BOGO deal? Perhaps we should rephrase and say you’re watching cheerleading and as an added bonus, there are guys in funny padded costumes knocking each other over in the background. Depending on how your favorite football team’s season is going (or not going), you may prefer to spend your season ticket money watching those tumblers and stunters.

Then there’s the “costume” argument. I’m going to just call it like it is. If you’re going to argue anything about the appearance of a cheerleader having anything to do with it being a sport or not, I’d urge you to reconsider. I’ve heard the phrase “Girls who wear barely any clothes, wear makeup and glitter are not athletes.” So how do you explain gymnastics? Have you SEEN the hair spray, makeup, glitter, and lack of clothing in gymnastics? If you haven’t, take a look at the photos below.

Have you been to a swim meet lately? We all used to joke about girls who curled their hair and put on make up just to dive in the pool and mess it all up. Then they’d go re-do their makeup in between events. And last time I checked—swimmers don’t wear ANY clothing. Don’t even get me started on the “acceptable” amount of swimsuit wedgie. Let’s just say that we all knew who THAT girl was who crossed the line (literally) in her Arena suit. She always swore that’s how they’re worn in Europe. And we won’t even discuss guys in racing Speedos.

Skilled runners all over the world wear spandex shorts that barely cover their bums and sometimes up top they wear only a sports bra. Last time I watched the Olympics even the male runners had on jewelry and the female runners had beautiful hairstyles and wore makeup. Don’t believe me? Check out this blog on “What Professional Runners and Prom Queens Have in Common”.

Mackey-Trailing-Rowbury-Trials

Shout out to Duke ’06 runner & 2008, 2012 Olympian Shannon Rowbury! Photo credit: http://www.donidexter.com/blog/2012/07/02/womens-1500-meter-semi-finals-olympic-trials/

Makeup, glitter, and barely any clothes are just part of the pedagogy in most of these activities. It’s what helps them function in their roles. Visualize an Olympic sprinter in full football gear, or a gymnast in a helmet or elbow pads. Gotten a good mental image down? Just wouldn’t have the same effect, now would it?

Next argument. If an activity has organized practice, requires conditioning, stretching, strengthening, coaching, hydration in between exercises, stresses someone’s cardiovascular reserve—is that not an athletic activity by any other name? Then you add the judging and scoring associated with all star cheerleading—and now you have an athletic competition.

There are the artistic and skill components of choreography and tumbling in cheerleading. Wait! Gymnastics has choreography and tumbling in the floor routine! Interesting! Some may argue that a “subjective” activity like gymnastics or diving with a scoring system is not really a sport or game. I’d like to see you practice gymnastics for 20+ hours per week and tell me you’re not doing a sport. Tell Gabby Douglas she’s not an athlete. Let me know how that goes for you.

In addition, there’s synchronized swimming and one of my favorites- the new Olympic sport of synchronized diving (shout out to Duke Women’s Diving Olympic Silver Medalist Abby Johnston, by the way!). Both have choreographed tumbling-esque components. Oh, and check out the makeup and costumes in synchronized swimmers. Minus the whole don’t-drown-while-dancing-upside-down-underwater part, how is synchronized tumbling in cheerleading any different?

Let’s layer on teamwork. The amount of teamwork required for cheerleading stunts is impressive if you have ever seen a competitive cheerleading routine. This level of teamwork and coordination is present in other activities we call “sports” including rowing, soccer, basketball, and football. And no, if you think I’m being the pot calling the kettle black– I’m not comparing University of Kentucky Cheerleading to the Miami Heat. I’m just making a point on teamwork. So, if sports require teamwork, then I would presume that cheerleading should fall into the sports category, correct?

But wait! Some of those sports I mentioned are games. Cheerleading is NOT a game, right? So what is a game? According to the University of Google, a game is a “form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.” By that definition, I think we can call cheerleading a sport, athletic activity, and I would go so far as to call it a (gasp!) game.

BYPRUQwIYAAE7Px

Stingray All Stars Grape Rays. Photo credit: https://twitter.com/Grape_Rays/status/348063948752449537/photo/1

Unlike the similar activities of gymnastics and diving that I already mentioned, there is one element of cheerleading that makes it unique. Weight lifting. Let me clarify. This is not CrossFit Cheerleading. By “weights” I mean humans. Now that’s some high-risk weight lifting. While I completely respect (and love!) diving and gymnastics, neither of those sports requires humans to lift other humans in a completely well-timed choreographed routine. Then there is the comparison we could draw with weight lifting and throwing. Do you see Olympic weight lifters dead lifting another weight lifter? No. Do you see the javelin thrower launching another human into the air? No. Come to think of it, the entertainment behind both of those ideas might actually get me to watch them on TV.

So in summary—if cheerleading is not an athletic pursuit, sport, game, or whatever term you’d like to use, then I feel I’ve been misinformed for 30 years about what IS a sport.

Still not convinced? Check out this video. These collegiate cheerleaders (arguably the best in the nation) have earned the title of “sport” in my book. I might also add that I’m ridiculously impressed with the body mechanics of the bases. They make it look easy. Read on to Part 2 to find out why basing body mechanics are important and why cheerleaders, like all athletes, need good safety awareness, sports medicine care, and research.

Cracking Concussions: Part 2

If you’re just picking up this post, you may have missed the story from Part 1 about my recent patient (Patient 1) who presented with a concussion. I discussed how without my recognition of his symptoms, he may have been misdiagnosed and/or mismanaged.

Mirror this case with another case of a high school athlete (Patient 2) I was treating at the exact same time of Patient 1. Patient 2 sustained a head injury when falling backward onto her head during a home plate collision during a softball game. Her father, a pediatric physician assistant, was on the scene and immediately recognized signs of a concussion. She was monitored and taken to a local emergency department. She followed up within a day or so with a pediatric primary care sports medicine physician, who recommended cognitive rest, a modified school schedule and program, and prompt referral to physical therapy.

Within 3 days she was in my office with similar signs and symptoms of the other athlete mentioned before. We performed several specialized manual therapy techniques to her spine, neck, and head to address the physical ailments from whiplash associated with a head injury. She performed gaze retraining and stabilization exercises to assist with convergence and visual tracking. These are skills necessary for reading, viewing the environment, and sports participation. We also utilized Redcord Neurac, a suspension-based neuromuscular re-education system to help restore her balance and stability. She followed a personalized stepwise progression back to school and softball.

And yes, like every good overachieving and motivated athlete out there, she overdid it. I warned her on her first visit that her symptoms would clear long before she was ready to return to sports. True to form, she felt better and decided to exercise—something like simple jogging and softball throwing. She reported a severe headache the next day and she was unable to fully participate in school.

This is common in concussion recovery, and it is paramount that athletes be monitored as they gradually return to their sports.  It’s also important they be encouraged not to overdo it. The good news is that she learned her lesson and followed the rules. Soon enough, she was back in the classroom and the field.

In her case, she was in the right place at the right time when she was injured. Her dad knew what to do. She got to the right physician, who just-so-happened to be a pediatric sports specialist and affiliated with her school. Her physician had previously set up a concussion monitoring and management program with the school and athletic program for all students, not just athletes.  Importantly, he referred her to physical therapy within a week of her injury. It was the ideal situation.

Ironically, one week before encountering these two patients, I had just had an interesting conversation with my PT colleague who posted this informative blog post about her 8-year-old son’s concussion. She was less aware of the role that sports medicine and neurologically-trained physical therapists play in concussion assessment and rehabilitation.

As with any other injury that keeps a person from participating in their activities of daily living and sports, specialized physical therapists are trained to rehabilitate and safely monitor patients as they return to activities following concussion. According to a 2012 position statement released by the American Physical Therapy Association House of Delegates, physical therapists trained specifically in sports medicine, vestibular rehabilitation, and/or neurologic rehabilitation can play a key role in evaluating and treating the movement impairments, functional limitations, and participation restrictions associated with concussion and mild traumatic brain injury.

Concussion is not only a hot topic on my recent caseload, but it is also running rampant everywhere else. Recently another PT colleague told me of a conversation she overheard at her daughter’s competitive cheerleading gym. Evidently on one girl’s high school cheerleading squad, 4 girls were recently out of commission due to concussions.

Just as participation of females in sports has increased, concussions in female athletes are also a growing issue. Many people may think of male-dominated contact sports such as football, baseball and lacrosse as the most common denominators for head injury and concussion. You may be surprised to know that some statistics show that cheerleading and women’s soccer are resulting in more concussions than other male contact sports. A 2012 position statement by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine found that in sports with similar rules, female athletes sustain more injuries than their male counterparts.

Females experiencing concussion also report higher number and severity of concussion symptoms as well as longer duration of recovery from concussion. Read here about concussions in competitive cheerleading and here about a 9-year-old softball player who made a full recovery. Visit pinkconcussions.com, the first-ever dedicated online site to education and information on concussions specific to female athletes.

Concussions are not just happening in youth sports, but they’re also becoming famous, too. Much controversy surrounds Major League Baseball’s new rules to ban home plate collisions for several reasons, some of which were due to repercussions of injuries sustained by players. The current news is filled with the story the landmark settlement between the National Football League and 4500 former players claiming the NFL’s responsibility in the long-term health deficits of the players who sustained concussions while playing. There’s also the story of the college football player whose coaches ignored his symptom complaints and pushed him to continue to play. Sadly, that player eventually died.

On the youth level, it may not be on the front page of ESPN, but it’s just as much of a big deal. As of January 11, 2014, all 50 states have enacted legislation mandating some form of concussion “reform” in school and recreational sports leagues. In Georgia State Law, the Return to Play Act was passed in April 2013 and enacted on January 1, 2014. This mandates that all teams and leagues must provide concussion education to parents and coaches, recommend baseline concussion testing, hold athletes from play until cleared by a healthcare professional. In 2008, the state of Washington passed the Zackary Lystedt Law, named for a second impact syndrome survivor who was permanently disabled after returning to sports too prematurely following concussion.

Unfortunately, the sad thing is that these injuries have required state and federal action to bring everyone onto the same page on this important issue. Let’s be honest, even with the laws, “Everyone” and “on the same page” are probably generous phrases. But, it’s a start. We have a long way to go, but judging by how much my twitter feed has blown up with this topic in the last few months, I’d say that we are really getting the word out there.

It’s not just a problem for kids. It’s a problem for everyone.

So—even for you grown-ups out there, the next time you get your “bell rung” (by the way, please don’t use that term) or you just feel a little “fuzzy” after you bang your head on the open cabinet in the kitchen for the 80th time (don’t you just hate it when you do that?)…please put down your computer, your phone, cancel that workout or meeting tomorrow, and consider the long term effects such an injury may have on you.

If you’re an athlete-please tell someone you feel bad. It’s common, but not normal, to feel the way you do after your injury. You’ll get back to your sport faster if you do. No game, school exam, or competition is worth the risk of pushing it too far.

Cracking Concussions: Part 1 new & improved!

Whoops, looks like I missed out on #throwbackthursday. Maybe it’s because I have #chemobrain. Or maybe it’s because I have had several concussions in the past and there’s a likelihood that my memory has been affected-even for some minor tasks like publishing a blog post. Or in this case, re-posting a blog post. In honor of the 2-year anniversary of this blog, I’ve decided to wake up from my 6-month long radio silence and re-publish one of my first posts with a little updated commentary. Nobody likes to reinvent the wheel after all.

Many of us have hit our heads, whether during sports or otherwise, and don’t even realize we have had a concussion. We’re pretty resilient-and smart. And a lot of times we don’t know what we don’t know–even when we are medical professionals who actually treat concussions–and we end up with symptoms we think are characteristic of something else or are “completely normal”:

Oh, I’m just tired. Maybe it’s because I’ve been so busy lately.

I can’t focus. I’ll take a break later. I have to push through and finish this.

My clients seem so unreasonable lately. They just don’t get it.

I have a killer headache. Let me take some medicine.

I keep having trouble with sleep. Maybe I should cut back on caffeine.

I feel like I have too much on my plate and can’t remember all the things on my list. Maybe I need to re-prioritize.

My husband/kids is/are driving me CRAZY lately. I just can’t take them these days.

Driving seems a lot harder. Same with going to the grocery store. There’s just too much going on all at once.

I’m dizzy. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. I hear a lot of my friends have vertigo.

The thing is–none of these things are normal whether you’ve had a concussion or not. Regarding whether they’re normal if you haven’t had a concussion-that’s another blog post for another day. But if you have recently (say, in the last 1-2 months) had a car accident, whiplash, a fall, sports injury, or even something where you haven’t actually hit your head but your body has incurred trauma–CONGRATULATIONS! You may qualify for the concussion club.

No wait, that’s not something to be proud of. But it is something to be aware of and to tell someone.

Why?

A recent study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in November 2015 showed that two years after incurring a concussion, children ages 8-10 showed lasting deficits in brain function and cognitive performance compared to other children who did not incur a concussion. This means that they are falling behind in school, sports, and likely social function.

No bueno! I don’t want that for MY KID!

Yeah, I don’t want that for your kid, either.

So wait Julie, you’re talking about a study on kids. So why did you begin this post talking about adults? Stay focused, woman!

Maybe it’s my history of concussion talking that has made me move from talking about adults to kids in a matter of sentences. Or maybe, just maybe,  I care just as much about kids as I do about adults.

We’ve heard countless studies about the long term effects of concussion in adults. Don’t believe me? See the blog post below that I wrote 2 years ago, Cracking Concussions Part 1 and its sister post, Cracking Concussions Part 2.

Now it’s finally starting to be studied in kids. Just like everything else in the sports medicine world-we tend to study adults before we study kids.

But the punchline here is that concussions can have long term effects on ANYONE who has one. You don’t have to be an athlete to have a concussion. You can be an everyday average Joe, age 2-122 and have it still affect you.

Quick examples:

  • A friend of mine hit her head almost 2 years ago and didn’t realize she had a concussion. She was in her early 30’s. I recognized her symptoms before she did. Initially within a few days of hitting her head, she didn’t have symptoms. By the time I saw her-several days later, I encouraged her to go home from work. She obliged and was out of work for nearly a week as her symptoms gradually worsened. She saw a sports concussion specialist and had to really ease her way into working and exercising-quickly learning the hard way that it was very easy to “overdo” it without even realizing-until later-that she was doing that. But now–2 years later–she still notes deficits for which she must seek very specialized medical care. The Take Home: You may not be aware you’ve had a concussion. But even when you follow all the rules once you realize you have had one, you may see deficits later. A concussion is the real deal. You can’t see it and it doesn’t show up on a scan or blood test (yet!), but it is an injury and illness with dramatic lasting effects. You can lessen the effects on yourself by following specialized protocols.
  • Another friend of mine was in 2 traumatic motor vehicle accidents within 2 months of each other-also in her early 30’s. She saw deficits in her athletic performance, ability to do her corporate leadership job, and a smattering of emotional and social deficits. She was surprised when I told her she had symptoms of concussion. She ended up seeing a battery of specialists including neuropsychology, vestibular PT, sports medicine PT, neurology, acupuncture and integrative medicine–along with many others. She had some pre-existing issues which made her concussion injuries and illness more difficult to overcome, but 1 year later she still notes deficits in concentration, memory, energy, and other health-related factors. But she has made drastic, leaps-and-bounds progress from where she was 1 year ago. Take home: you can REALLY do all the right things, and it will REALLY help you, but it just takes time to let your body heal and recover.

So, if you or your child have a fall, have whiplash, have an accident where you hit your head or some other body part–chances are, you may have had a concussion. And remember–your chin, your nose, your eye, and your jaw are all part of your head too. Injuries to these areas-no matter how minor you think they are–are officially a head injury.

Concussion symptoms are so sneaky and can rear their ugly heads weeks, months, or even years after your injury. While I never advocate over-treating or over-assessing yourself or your child, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Seek help from a medical professional who specializes in concussion assessment and treatment. Taking the right steps to care for yourself and your family will lessen the sneaky effects of concussion on you in the long run!

Cracking Concussions: Part 1

Photo credit: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/dam/assets/130130184905-pj-hairston-single-image-cut.jpg
Photo credit: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/dam/assets/130130184905-pj-hairston-single-image-cut.jpg

“So, I fell and hit my head while playing basketball 3 days ago and blacked out, but the doctor told me it’s not a concussion.”

A month ago, a high school athlete–let’s call him Patient 1–I was already seeing for another injury came in and told me that. Having experience in concussion assessment and rehabilitation, my internal alarm started to sound. This conversation ensued:

“What type of doctor did you see?” -Me

“The emergency room doctor.” -Patient 1

“How did they decide you did not have a concussion” -Me

“They took a CT scan and it didn’t show anything.” –Patient 1

Well that’s good. But um…last I heard, CT scans don’t show a concussion.

“Did they do anything else for you?” -Me

“No, just told me to go home.” -Patient 1

“And what did you do over the last few days?” -Me

“Played on the computer, did schoolwork, and played video games.” –Patient 1

Hmmm…Exactly what you shouldn’t do…

“So, how’s your headache today?”  -Me.

“Pretty bad. Wait, how do you know I have a headache?” –Patient 1

High five to the mentor who taught me to ask that!

“Did you go to school today?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” said Patient 1

Wonderful. Because going to school is a fabulous way to recover from a traumatic brain injury.

“Tell me about how you felt all day. Everything normal?” I asked.

“Well, I had trouble focusing on the board and reading my handouts, so my teacher said I could just listen. I felt nauseous around lunch and didn’t eat much. I really wanted to take a nap after that and could barely keep my eyes open. Later in the afternoon my friends were making fun of me because I was off-balance and walking into lockers.” he said.

My eyebrows raised. It doesn’t get much more “textbook” than that, folks.

I asked Patient 1, who plays multiple contact sports both for school and recreational leagues, if the school administered a computerized or non-computerized baseline concussion assessment. He said no.

Great.

I asked him several questions about his symptoms.  He answered “yes” to almost every concussion symptom on this list:

  • Confusion
  • Clumsy movement or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Memory loss
  • Tiredness
  • Upset stomach
  • Vision problems
  • Sensitivity to noise and light
  • Numbness or tingling anywhere on the body
  • Loss of balance or trouble walking
  • Mentally foggy, cannot think clearly or remember things
  • Slurred speech or other changes in speech
  • Irritable or more fussy than usual
  • Acts differently than normal (does not play, acts fussy or seems confused)
  • More emotional, perhaps very sad or nervous
  • Different sleeping patterns

Then I asked him to perform some simple cognitive tasks like saying a list of 3 numbers backward, remembering a list of random words, and reciting the months of the year backward.   He left out October, August, and May, and put January before March.

Yowza.

Then I did some balance tests. Physical therapists are trained to evaluate and treat balance problems caused by vestibular disorders. The vestibular system is the behind-the-scenes system that detects head movement and helps maintain a sense of balance.  This system is often impaired with a head injury. He lost balance immediately when asked to “stand like a statue” with his feet together and his hands on his hips. When asked to perform this with eyes closed, he reported feeling very dizzy. Just a week before this, he had been doing fine on these tests.

These tests were part of a quick concussion assessment I used to determine if the patient had any cognitive or motor deficits. Though best performed at the time of injury, this test is just one of several research-validated options for kids over age 10. A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that if the young athlete has not had a pre-injury or baseline assessment, it’s hard to know how “abnormal” his or her results may be. Even if the validity of my test was limited, I knew I needed something to back up what I was suspecting.

After this test, I checked his ability to track an object with his eyes. He could not track a pencil approaching his nose. This is a skill called convergence which is necessary for reading. No wonder schoolwork made him worse! He reported a worsening headache during this test. Meanwhile he asked me to turn off the lights because his head hurt worse.

I’d seen enough. I contacted my colleague, a local pediatric sports medicine specialist. He asked me what the patient’s signs and symptoms were, to which I replied “about as textbook as they come.” He agreed that Patient 1 more than likely had a concussion and would need medical management.

I spoke with the patient’s parents and recommended a prompt referral to the child’s pediatrician. They told me that the patient had a concussion 3 years ago as well. I thought of a scary condition called second impact syndrome. Sometimes occurring in players experiencing a second concussion within the same season or year of the first concussion before the first one heals, Patient 1 did not exhibit signs of this condition. Fortunately, Patient 1 also reported his symptoms before he could potentially re-injure himself.

A lot of players are at risk for this or other serious conditions when they don’t tell someone they feel bad after an injury. Players feel the pressure when they’re injured and often don’t tell anyone. To them, being “benched” from injury may cost them play time, scholarship opportunities, pride, or their first-string spot on a team. A 2013 study from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that half of high school football players would continue to play if they had a headache stemming from an injury sustained on the field.

Not speaking up about any injury can really cost you, as evidenced by this story of a player who not only experienced life-threatening issues, but nearly missed out on a year of her young life trying to recover from them.

Patient 1’s parents wondered why they were told he had not had a concussion when at the hospital. There were plenty of reasons for this discrepancy. Sometimes symptoms of a concussion may be delayed, showing up a day or so later. I also discussed with them that a concussion is a functional, chemical process, not a physical one. It was good they sought emergency care for a head injury, as other serious or life-threatening injuries could have occurred. It’s important for a trained physician to determine how to rule those injuries out and make the proper diagnosis and referral. But, because concussion is a chemical and physiological process, it means that the concussion itself would generally not show up on a CT scan. They understood that’s why they were told “the CT scan did not show a concussion.”

brain-300x299

I recommended that the patient begin cognitive rest. This included no “screens,” including cell phones, TVs, video games, and computers—IE, everything he had done the day before. A recent study indicated that lack of cognitive rest following concussion in individuals age 8-23 can impede recovery time. Cognitive rest also includes avoiding school, something that most parents and kids typically do not like to hear. I forwarded them this information about rest from school and activity recommended by an international consortium on concussion management. I again reiterated that they follow-up with their pediatrician for further guidance.

I received a call the next day stating the patient was diagnosed by the pediatrician with a concussion. I eventually saw the patient 3 weeks later upon being cleared by the physician to return to activity. Later he would tell me he missed several days of school and had to make up his exams.

For this athlete, everything was managed perfectly except for a few things. His cognitive rest was delayed. He got worse after spending a day playing video games and going to school. He did not participate in formal concussion rehabilitation PT. In fact, even though I was already treating him for something else, he was instructed to cancel his PT appointments and avoid all activity, then cleared to return to activity without formal testing or monitoring.

Read on to Part 2 to find out what else should have happened, and why we need to improve awareness and management of this problem everywhere.