Strong | Head trauma study is a no-brainer




Late last year, the Ivy League established the Multi-Sport Concussion Review Committee to find ways to limit concussion incidence in both men’s and women’s sports. The committee recently came up with a series of recommendations for men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse, which were approved by league presidents on July 16.

It’s about time.

Concussions are traumatic brain injuries. They interfere with the way your brain works, causing everything from headaches to impairments in judgement, memory and balance.

A friend of mine who played for her college’s rugby team took a brutal knock to the head, which she thought at the time was “no big deal.” She guessed at the time she’d suffered a concussion, but she never bothered to get it checked out.

When she started to get frequent headaches, lose sleep and have a much harder time reading than usual, she got tested for a brain injury. Turns out she’d suffered a brain contusion (a brain bruise) as a result of the concussion, which just needed time for it to heal on its own. While most of her symptoms went away, she did suffer one (as yet) permanent side effect — total loss of her sense of smell.

Plus she’s been strongly cautioned against playing any kind of contact sport ever again.

There’s another story that hits closer to home for most of us — that of Owen Thomas’ shocking suicide in April 2010. A posthumous study of Thomas’ brain showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain affliction that results from repeated head trauma. CTE has been linked to depression and problems with impulse control, particularly in football players.

Katherine Brearley, Thomas’ mother, told the AP in September 2010 she didn’t know the extent to which brain trauma had caused her son to commit suicide.

“I can only say for myself that Owen was a very unlikely person to, in his normal state of mind, commit suicide,” she said. “He didn’t have a history of depression. There are no significant factors that we could see that trigger that kind of action.”

Brearley said Thomas started playing football when he was nine or 10 and had never been diagnosed with a concussion, nor had he ever showed any side effects normally associated with brain trauma.

“The evidence coming in from Owen — and it will have to be confirmed from much further study — is that this [injury] is not just a question of a person getting big hits and then ignoring them,” Brearley told The Philadelphia Inquirer when his results came back from the Boston University Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. “This is a person getting many little hits, starting from a young age. Football linebackers might get 1,000 little hits.”

Thomas’ story should be a lesson and a warning, and it seems that the Ivy League in particular is taking some seriously preventative measures against head trauma, and not just in football. The league adopted a series of concussion-curbing measures in 2011, after a year-long review of football-related head injury data, but those measures were specific to football.

In developing its recommendations, theMulti-Sport Concussion Review Committee reviewed national data and research, as well as three years of retrospective Ivy League-specific concussion data. The recommendations will be implemented in the upcoming academic year.

The lacrosse and soccer coaches here at Penn have each indicated what they will be doing individually to put the committee’s recommendations into play.

Men’s lacrosse coaches will be asked to designate 11 days in the fall and spring where body checking will not be permitted during practice. Coaches will also be asked to emphasize proper hitting techniques that reduce unnecessary hits to the head.

Similarly, the women’s lacrosse team will have 10 days of practice during which stick checking will not be allowed. They, too, will be required to attend at least one skill instruction session that focuses on proper stick-checking technique prior to the first fall practice.

Both men’s and women’s soccer will re-emphasize the substitution rule that allows for re-entry for players subbed out with concussion-like symptoms. The rule allows for substitution and re-entry for players with concussion-like symptoms so that they can be properly evaluated on the sideline but substituted back into the game (not counting against team’s substitution total) if they are cleared to play by a team trainer or physician.

The league also asked that all men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer programs to collect prospective data regarding concussions in the coming seasons in order to produce higher quality concussion data for further study.

The review committee will continue to make recommendations for other sports, but the measures put in place already for soccer and lacrosse are a major step forward in concussion prevention, and other conferences and leagues should take notice.

The Big Ten has arguably led the way in concussion prevention initiatives: in 2010, they became the first conference to develop and implement what they called a “Concussion Management Plan.” Their plan included baselines for student-athletes to return to academic and athletic activities after suffering head trauma and also stressed the importance of collecting data related to head injuries for further study.

That’s good news for the Ancient Eight, who recently announced a concussion study partnership with the Big Ten, which will pool the two conferences’ resources and experts.

“Bringing our institutions together in this transformative initiative simply made sense,” said David Skorton, co-chair of the Multi-Sport Concussion Review Committee and president of Cornell, in a press release announcing the collaboration. “[We] believe this collaboration will lead to new forms of preventative and therapeutic action to counter the immediate and long-term harm of concussions and enhance the well-being of our student-athletes.”

The important thing is officials across NCAA athletics have recognized how critical it is to be smart about brain injuries. We can’t expect that we can totally stop them from happening — injuries are bound to happen no matter what we do — but we can find ways to at least lessen their occurrence, and if they do occur, we can help prevent any long-term effects from happening.

The Ivy League’s measures are not comprehensive yet, but they’re a major step in the right direction. For the sake of every athlete, young and old, who has ever stepped on a field, keep stepping.

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