Head first into the concussion debate

I took two hard knocks to the head in the space of two weeks playing rugby when I was 16.

I took two hard knocks to the head in the space of two weeks playing rugby when I was 16.

After the second one, I was seeing double, had an overwhelming headache that made me nauseous and had serious balance issues.

The doctor diagnosed a concussion, prescribed a few days of bed rest (and no more rugby that spring), and sent me for tests that determined I had also damaged muscles that controlled my left eye. The eye issue was resolved with time and therapy, although it still aches when I become overtired. The headaches persisted for weeks, but eventually diminished. The doctor also forbade me from playing football that fall.

Over the next few years, I would lead with my head too many more times. Two particular incidents resulted in trips to the hospital for multiple stitches. In all, my head has been stitched at least four times because of some sort of violent collision (excluding the rugby injuries). The external damage is usually obvious. The internal? Time, concussion research now suggests, will tell.

While the possibility of concussions was mentioned by medical personnel in each case, no detailed tests were done. Certainly no baseline protocol existed to establish damage or even potential damage.

The medical community has come a long way since then. Too bad the professional sporting world seems intent on following only by modest degrees, and usually kicking and screaming. How else do you explain the persistence of fighting in hockey, and the National Hockey League’s resolute refusal to admit the depth of its concussion problem?

For every minor sports organization that establishes stringent best practices — a high school football program in Red Deer, for example, is replacing all of its helmets with the latest technology, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars — there are the laggards in professional sports who can’t bring themselves to be the trendsetters they should be.

Their lack of common-sense is staggering: use of the best helmets, in professional football and hockey, is not mandated, nor is the use of specific facemasks in football or visors in hockey. The NHL also does not demand the use of mouthguards, although they are proven to diminish the impact of head trauma, nor does it insist that helmets are even tightly fastened. And, of course, fighting remains a staple of the NHL (hockey thrives right up to the junior level without fighting, so why it belongs in the junior and pro ranks is an acute frustration).

The NHL repeatedly treats issues of workplace safety inconsistently and even cavalierly. Look no further than the stream of emails from the league released recently as part of the concussion-related class-action lawsuit former players have brought against the NHL. No other major industry could so blatantly violate common law and good sense.

Concussions (or mild traumatic brain injury) heal with tremendous uncertainty, if they heal at all. Medical science is getting closer to understanding how concussions damage the brain, but still does not know how to repair damage some concussion sufferers face long-term.

A concussion appears to involve a change in chemical function that alters how the brain works. Symptoms include: dizziness; difficulty concentrating, solving problems and making decisions; headaches and blurry vision; a lack of energy and motivation; being tired and irritable; sensitivity to light and sound; and nausea.

Those who suffer multiple head injuries often have a disease known to cause cognitive decline, behavioural abnormalities and ultimately dementia. Premature death has also been found in this group, by as much as 20 years (the rash of suicides by former pro athletes who suffered head trauma should be included in these numbers).

Such head injury can preclude a productive, normal life — let alone playing a sport.

A recent study by Toronto’s York University and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences found that the number of young people treated for concussions is on the rise. The Ontario study showed that concussion treatment rose to 754 from 466 per 100,000 boys and to 440 from 208 per 100,000 girls from 2003 to 2011. In all, almost 89,000 pediatric concussions were treated.

That snapshot is chilling, but it should also be heartening. It means that more parents and minor sports officials recognize the dangers of head injury and are reacting appropriately.

Awareness is a huge thing in concussion treatment. The more that young people are protected from repeated head trauma, the less impactful concussions will be.

Now if we can just get professional sports organizations to understand what savvy parents have always known.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past.

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