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Then what?

Posted Feb 03 2011 8:43pm

I’ve become a huge fan of The Concussion Blog , a blog focusing on sports-related concussions by Dustin Fink, a certified athletic trainer (ATC) working in Central Illinois . He’s been bringing up some really great issues and pointing readers to some really thought-provoking material. I’m not sure where he finds the time, but he does.

Concussion – especially sports concussion, which is is focus – seems to be getting a lot of air time, lately. The NFL and NHL both have been the focus of some pretty public scrutiny, which is good. Also, soccer is getting attention, though not nearly as dramatic as football and hockey. I suspect part of it is the nature of the games. Plus, it’s been football and hockey season with some very high profile cases of concussion taking out excellent players. I think it’s seasonal as well.

What I wonder about especially, these days, is the impact that all this attention is having on student athletes and other athletes who sustain concussions. We see the truly sobering stories of CTE and dementia and behavior problems… broken marriages, criminality, homelessness, drug abuse, suicide… in football as well as professional wrestling. And we see the scientific evidence that although a brain may look normal on the outside, the inside can be riddled with proteins and damage that only show up through specialized testing.

And it makes me wonder what we’re going to do with this information. Are we going to all get spooked and flee the playing field, as though it were a dead-end trap? Are we going to forbid kids from playing the types of games they’ve played for generations? Are kids going to become so spooked themselves, that when they do hit their heads, they descend a dark spiral down into depression and thinking “Well, it’s all over now. I’m brain damaged and I’m going to end up like Mike Webster .”

It’s bad enough being denied your chance to play because of an injury you can’t see. But having the future be so uncertain, not knowing if you’re going to have post-concussive symptoms like so many athletes who never fully return to the game… that can make you crazy.

I often wonder if the intense focus on the dangers of concussion is 100% helpful. For me, the whole point of focusing on a problem, is to come up with a solution. But no solutions other than changes in rules, stronger enforcement, and benching injured players till they’re asymptomatic, have seemed to surface. Nobody except the University At Buffalo’s Concussion Clinic has apparently come up with an actual response to post-concussive symptoms . Yet despite their groundbreaking findings and ongoing work in this area, they’re getting hardly any press.

Everyone seems more focused on the problem, than coming up with a solution.

Why? I think perhaps it has to do with our innate desire to protect our kids, to prevent injury, and to avoid the kinds of dangers that are inherent in contact/collision sports. We want to shield the next generation from unnecessary hazards, and we want to make sure kids are kept safe. There’s no fault in that, certainly. But are we focusing on prevention at the expense of remediation and recovery? Are we so intent on keeping the inevitable at bay, that we are missing our opportunity to craft an intelligent and thoughtful response to the casualties which do occur?

I think perhaps we are. Of course, athletic trainers and coaches are going to focus on health care and prevention. Of course parents are going to look out for their kids’ best interests. In addition to these important activities, I really want to stress the importance of offering concussed athletes (indeed, anyone who’s experienced a traumatic brain injury) some hope and a view of a future that doesn’t center on impending dementia and self-destruction.

When you’re a kid, everything looks big, everything looks final. And it’s awfully easy to lack perspective that can only come from experience. I believe it is up to us, the adults in the room, to provide that perspective, and to stand up and say, “Look, you got hurt. Other people get hurt, too. It happens. And it doesn’t need to be the end of it all. Just because you have to sit out a month … or two … or three… does NOT mean it’s the end of your life or the end of your sporting career. You may need to find other activities to pursue and you may need to take up another sport that doesn’t involve smashing your head against hard surfaces many times each game, but so what? There’s more to life than piling on each other and bringing the hurt.”

I say this not just as an adult who has experienced a number of concussions throughout my life (nine that I can count probably more). I say this also as a former student athlete who would have given anything to get back out on the field, had my coaches allowed me. I was fortunate to be kept on the sidelines when my performance was so obviously impacted that only an idiot would have let me continue to play. But if it had been left up to me, you know I’d have been out there in the thick of things, no contest.

I’m not sure how I would have taken it, had I been diagnosed with a concussion and told that my cognitive future was uncertain.

This uncertainty, I believe, really needs to be addressed. For everyone’s sake.

More on this in the coming weeks…

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