Latest Research: Sports Concussions

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August 6, 2015
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TouchdownNovember 9, 1962, Arlington’s high school football team was playing against Wichita Falls. One of Arlington’s players, Francis “Rusty” Jewett, was going into the second quarter of his game. With a momentous play, Rusty caught a pass and was tackled to the ground; as he rose, one of the opponents hit him in the back of the head.

Rusty was unconscious on the field.

Trainers put “smelling salts” under his nose, and Rusty woke back up, ready to go in for the third quarter.

With Arlington’s team driving for the score, the quarterback called for a pass play. Rusty saw his quarterback was about to be tackled, so he came back to block for him. Hitting the opponent low, Rusty’s head collided with the opponent’s knee.

Rusty woke up in an ambulance.

Seeing his mom and football coach on the field, he tried to undo the strap that was holding him down on the gurney. Unable to release himself, Rusty threw his head back in frustration.

Rusty woke up again in the hospital.

What is a concussion?

“Concussion is considered to be among the most complex injuries in sports medicine,” states the 2012 Consensus statement from the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport in Zurich. “Concussion is a brain injury and is defined as a complex pathophysiological process affecting the brain, induced by biomechanical forces.”

Concussions have had many definitions over time. In the early days of sports, concussions were referred to “having your bell rung,” or “head ding.”

“Concussions weren’t a thing back then,” says Rusty Jewett, now in his 70s. “After suffering up to three concussions in one night, I was told no practice for two weeks, and that was it.”

In the current stage of sports, most athletes, especially those participating through a school league, take what are known as baseline tests, the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool, or SCAT. These tests measure a baseline level of symptoms, physical signs, behavior, cogitative impairment, and sleep disturbance. When an athlete is hit, he or she retakes the test and the results are compared to fully diagnose the concussion.

Often times the immediate symptoms experienced (dizziness, headaches, etc.) will cease up to 10 days after the initial impact

“The difference in having a brain injury versus another part of the body is the brain’s inability to recognize and have compassion for its own deficits,” says Donna Hilbig, M.Ed., LPC-S, NCC, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and national board certified counselor specializing in trauma in Bryan/College Station.

“The most common struggle is associated with mood and agitation but is actually a neurological effect of the physical impact,” says Hilbig. “The energy that is introduced into the system from the impact is unable to travel through the body in an organized way, so it gets ‘stuck’ in the tissues. This causes long-term residual effects of the impact. As a result, this stuck energy becomes easily triggered by stress.

Lingering effects such as these act as a result of postconcussion syndrome or PCS. PCS is defined by the International Classification of Diseases “as the occurrence within one month of injury of at least three of the eight symptoms categories (insomnia, memory or intellectual difficulties, irritability, etc.)”

Psychological symptoms such as depression and irritability may appear for the first time up to a month later.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that, because the external signs of the wound heal, the person who has suffered the head injury should be completely recovered,” says Hilbig. “People don’t generally recognize that there may be on-going effects.”

As more studies appear and show many symptoms resulting from concussions don’t appear for maybe months or years after, the difficulty rises on how to properly treat such a serious injury.

“Teenagers think they are going to live forever,” explains Lori Greenwood, clinical professor at Texas A&M University. “They don’t oftentimes think of the severity of how something small now can grow into major problems later.”

Some people would like to blame coaches or doctors for not properly treating concussions, or injuries in general, but most of the responsibility falls on the athlete by speaking up when he or she is experiencing symptoms or knows something isn’t right.

Still suffering from symptoms of poor memory and lack of focus, current high school student Halle Van De Hey worries about how these symptoms my affect her future. Having suffered from three concussions in one year, Van De Hey is suffering the consequences. Had she known the effects of a concussion and what it entails, she would have taken care of herself and spoken up, she says.

The athlete mindset has been a constant stereotype for years—to push through the pain and keep going, to “shake it off” and get back in the game. “Many people, especially adults, are stuck in the traditional mindset,” says Greenwood. A ding in the head is no longer just a ding. It is something much more.

The future in concussions

Part of the beauty about being an individual is being unique, but it can also be the biggest roadblock in the medical world.

“No two concussions are ever the same,” says Greenwood. “No two people are the same, therefore no concussion will ever be the same.”

Greenwood added that research is both the biggest problem and success for concussions. It is difficult to research such a broad topic, but the more research gained, the more knowledge and awareness people have access to.

Texas A&M’s football program is investigating different technologies to help protect players on the field.

Concussion mouthpieces have been tested through the spring season, says David Weir, athletic trainer for Texas A&M. He explains they are searching for ways to best read the signals and forces applied to the brain, and the mouth just happens to be one of the closest points of access.

As research grows and new medical discoveries are made, the stronger the need is to let individuals in the athletic world know about the signs and symptoms, and more importantly, the severity of concussions. Overall, many doctors, therapist, parents, and coaches agree with Weir: “Bottom line, you have to make sure the player is well.”