By Dr. Shannon Bauman, Medical Director, Concussion North
Last week, the Concussion North team went to see the new film Concussion. The movie stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the physician who has been credited with finding evidence of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in the brains of deceased NFL players.
According to research at Boston University, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head.”
Not surprisingly, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about CTE since the Concussion movie came out, especially from parents concerned about the value of contact sports and the long term impact concussion injuries might have on their children. These are important questions to explore and address so I wanted to share my perspective as a sports medicine physician:
Sports support health. I believe strongly in the positive benefits of participating in sports. There are numerous health benefits for people of all ages, including cardiovascular fitness, a healthy BMI (body mass index), reduced insulin resistance, management of high cholesterol and hypertension and the reduction of symptoms associated with migraines, osteoarthritis, depression and anxiety and fibromyalgia. Playing team sports also leads to improved self-esteem, increased confidence, leadership skills, discipline and a sense of belonging.
Safe participation is key. As a community, we need to encourage safe participation in sports and recreational activities. This includes working with sports organizations, coaches, parents, schools and athletes to develop protocols that will keep sports safe. We need to:
- Establish and maintain environments that facilitate safe play;
- Ensure rules of the game are respected and enforced;
- Provide education to that will create awareness of sports-related injuries, including concussions; and
- Ensure there are procedures in place to help parents, coaches and family physicians recognize concussions and refer them to proper specialized medical support and care.
Concussions are serious. Concussions are brain injuries and they need to be taken seriously. An athlete needs to report a head injury to a coach or parent immediately. This is not the time to try and “push through the pain" or "tough it out”. A concussion is a medical diagnosis so an injured athlete needs to be seen by a medical doctor promptly after an injury occurs. The good news is most concussions resolve within two or three weeks. If concussions symptoms persist beyond two weeks, an athlete can be referred to a physician with a specialty in concussion care for treatment and support.
Preventing long-term damage requires short-term patience. A well-managed concussion is the best prevention against ongoing chronic effects of a concussion. While science may not yet know how many concussions are too many, we do know that the prompt diagnosis and treatment of concussions are crucial. Returning to sport before a brain has fully recovered is dangerous. It can lead to prolonged recovery and in some cases, a fatal outcome. An athlete may appear “fine” and a parent or coach can feel strongly that a player is ready to resume play. But determining a return-to-sport clearance is a medical decision that can only be made by a physician (MD) with expertise in concussion treatment. The right diagnosis at the right time followed by the right treatment matters. It can be the difference between life and death.
Each concussion is unique. No two athletes are alike and the same is true for their concussion injuries. Every concussion results in a different constellation of symptoms that are experienced in very specific ways unique to each person. To facilitate complete and sustained recovery, an athlete needs an individualized, medically supervised treatment plan that will identity each aspect of their concussion so the injury can be addressed in an integrated way.
So, do the benefits of playing sports outweigh the risks? Yes, in a general sense, they absolutely do. But if you or your child is struggling with a concussion, the decision to return-to-play is one you have to make in consultation with a physician-led health team that specializes in concussion care. This is the best way to minimize the long-term effects of sports-related brain injury.
If you have any questions about concussion prevention, testing or treatment, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at clinic. And if you’d like to know more about CTE, I recommend this excellent article: On Concussion: Separate Hype from Science.