Need To Separate Scientific Fact About Concussions From Media Sensationalism
The debate over sport-related concussions has been thrust into the national spotlight, and is a major public health topic affecting athletes of all ages. All one needs to watch is 5 minutes of a nationally-televised football game or to overhear concerned parents at a soccer practice to grasp the magnitude of the issue and its far-reaching effects. We’ve also each had a friend, family member, or acquaintance who suffered a sport-related concussion and took months to return back to normal life. The bottom line is that sports concussions hit home to millions.
As a neurosurgeon, I routinely deal with severe and life threatening injuries to the brain and spinal cord. Though concussions do not require surgical intervention, as a profession, neurosurgeons are charged with the great responsibility to protect the brain and learn more about how to diagnose, prevent, and manage these transient neurologic injuries.
For the last 4 years as a neurosurgery resident training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, I have been fortunate to be involved in the treatment of sport-related head injuries. Founded by neurosurgeon Allen K. Sills MD, neuropsychologist Gary S. Solomon PhD, and pediatric sports medicine physician Andrew Gregory MD. the multi-disciplinary Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center (VSCC) routinely treats youth, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes after they have suffered a concussion. Most commonly, we treat young athletes with post-concussion syndrome, where symptoms have persisted for at least one month after the initial injury. These athletes are suffering – trouble concentrating in school and unable to spend time with friends.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have seen the rare yet catastrophic athletic head injuries such as a young high school football player who suffered an unremarkable hit, and 5 minutes later, suddenly slumped over and was unresponsive on the sideline. After being airlifted to Vanderbilt (a Level 1 Trauma Center), he was diagnosed as having a subdural hemorrhage, a rare but life-threatening condition in which a blood clot forms around the surface of the brain causing downward pressure, where the critical structures of breathing and wakefulness herniate through the bottom of the skull. This often requires emergent hemicraniectomy – an operation that removes half of the skull to allow the brain to swell out rather than down. Though patients like this may survive, they are left with devastating neurologic injuries. They will never play football again; they will never independently go back to school; and they will never be the same teenager they once were.
Despite the rarity of such catastrophic head injuries, their effects are permanent for all involved. The experience is life-altering for the patient and family, as well as the surgeons, physicians, and nurses who cared for them, all of whom are left wondering, why did this particular collision cause a deadly brain hemorrhage where similar hits just cause transient symptoms? How can we make helmets safer to prevent against the rotational acceleration that causes brain hemorrhage? Could this happen to my child?” These are some of the many frustrating and scary questions that remain unanswered.
As a member of MomsTeam’s Board of Advisors, I am committed to educating parents, coaches, and players about what known medical science knows and what requires further scientific study. At times, emotionally charged media reports are meant more to attract readers than to accurately describe the science. I am personally committed to evaluating the most up-to-date research in an unbiased and rigorous way, and ensuring the right information is disseminated to the people that need it most. Through MomsTeam and the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center, I am committed to pursuing what is unknown and advancing the science of sport-related concussion.