Concussion study comes to Carroll

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 3/1/2016

Categories: Athletics F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2016 Grants and Research Students

Head Games

From the stands at Schneider Stadium, a spectator can easily hear the sounds of a Pioneer men’s football game: a quarterback calling out plays at the line of scrimmage, the defensive players yelling instructions to one another, and the hits.

Offensive line before play starts

The hits. The shuffling low sounds of players tackling one another, the click-clacking of pads against pads, and once in a great while, the sharp bang that cuts through the autumn air like a rifle’s report when two helmets collide. 

It’s a contact sport, football. The players—strong, fast and big—swarm to the ball and to each other like angry bulls. Soft cushioning and hard armor help to soften and absorb the hits, but bruises, sprains and breaks do occasionally occur. 

Those injuries are easy enough to deal with, at least from the perspective of a physician or team trainer. There is a protocol in place of wraps, or casts or ointments and a pretty good idea of how long the recovery will take.

But when the injury is to the head, when that searing thunderclap of helmet on helmet echoes in the stadium and shakes the leaves on the trees, well, all bets are off.

A concussion is a traumatic injury to the brain, that humming three-pound mass of close to one hundred billion neurons that allows us to think and to move and to be, really. When it gets violently jostled by a hard blow to the head, it slams up against the skull, and chaos ensues.

The symptoms of a concussion are numerous. They vary from individual to individual and from concussion to concussion. They may include a short lack of consciousness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, sensitivity to light, noise or other stimulation, confusion, vision problems, issues concentrating, loss of memory, depression, anxiety and balance issues, though this is not a complete list. The symptoms usually clear within several days, though they can linger for weeks, even months, and there are worries the effects may be deeper and more long-lasting than we’d imagined.

Concussions aren’t confined to contact sports, or even to sports. A fall on a slippery sidewalk, a car accident, or even hitting your head on an overhead cabinet can give you a concussion. But contact sports up the risk. And in a contact sport like football, where collisions occur on every play, concussions happen.

In the not-really-so-old days, they were called dingers, or getting your bell rung. Players would shake off the hit on the sideline, take a whiff of smelling salts, and run—or wobble—back on to the field of play. Which is about the worst thing you could do.

We know that now. We know that because of more sophisticated medical testing and imaging technology. We know the effects of a concussion can last days or even weeks. And we know that the risk of another concussion is far greater in the first week or two after the initial concussion. 

However, while it’s true that medical science has made great strides in increasing our understanding of brain injuries, much is still unknown.

"The big picture is to quantify the risk of concussion for households across America. Parents want to know."

Dr. Michael McCrea 
Medical College of Wisconsin

Television fuzz simulating a concussed feeling
Wide receiver being tackled

For example, some research seems to suggest that a major blow to the head isn’t all we have to worry about, that an accumulation of much smaller bumps and jiggles can cause damage as well. 

And then there is the potential of long-term impact. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. Though it can only be detected postmortem, individuals suffering from CTE often show symptoms of dementia when alive—such as confusion, memory loss, depression and rage.  

Most of us have heard about the autopsies conducted on former pro football players by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which diagnosed CTE in 96 percent of the players analyzed. 

That’s alarming but incomplete. For instance, we don’t know how many of us who aren’t former professional football players may someday develop CTE. “One of the dilemmas in the field now is that there really aren’t any randomized studies of the general population (to determine normal prevalence of CTE),” said Steve Staab ‘02, Carroll’s head athletic trainer. “In effect, that research is pre-selecting players with known conditions. It’s sort of like going to the cardiac ward to do a heart study.” While the news stories are frightening, we just don’t know how those numbers compare, nor can we draw direct links between concussions suffered decades ago and symptoms displayed in old age. Yet.

Back on the field at Schneider Stadium, about 60 members of the Carroll men’s football team are wearing specialized helmets, equipped with sensors that record all the hits, rattles and rolls each player will experience during the game. They are part of an ongoing study being conducted by Dr. Michael McCrea, professor of neurosurgery and neurology and director of brain injury research at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa. The data collected will also be used in a far larger $30 million study into brain injuries being funded by the NCAA and the Department of Defense. 

It’s been a boon to Carroll medical and training staff to be located so close to McCrea. “It’s a wonderful resource to have nearby,” said Staab, who has called the researcher with his own questions. For his part, McCrea praised Carroll University, adding that the school has been a valuable partner in his research.

The student athletes who volunteer for the study receive a small financial stipend when they undergo baseline testing and then again for any testing conducted post-concussion. The school receives the specially-equipped helmets. And everyone—medical and training staff, athletes, coaches and parents—gets a bit more information about a frightening and complex subject.

Staab said the buy-in from Carroll’s coaching staff has been great. It can’t be easy to rest a star athlete before a big game but the student athlete’s health and welfare comes first. 

As for the athletes themselves? Well…

“There are many who are very aware of the subject, but some are still in denial. Athletes are competitive, that never changes,” noted Staab. “They want to get back out there and compete.” Staab’s job then is to help educate them about the risk involved in returning too soon. And having objective data that illustrates just how much his or her performance has been affected helps convince even the most competitive athlete.

Greater awareness of concussions and their impact is a happy byproduct of the huge (some 37,000 male and female student athletes are involved) NCAA study. The long-term goals are to develop better prevention, protection and treatment of head injuries. 

“We are already far ahead of where we were even ten years ago in how we treat concussions. And we know we need to get better,” said Staab.

Concussion Symptoms

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Panoramic View of campus