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Knowing the causes, symptoms and treatment is the best defense against the long-term dangers of concussions

Traumatic brain injury is a hot topic of debate. With the movie “Concussion” making waves, the NFL changing its policies and dramatic new research findings, all of the sports world is taking notice.

We don’t understand every aspect of what the human brain is capable of, yet we are making strides toward better safety. Awareness and understanding is of the utmost importance when it comes to concussions.

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, between 1.6 and 3.8 million Americans suffer sports-related brain injuries each year.

Virtually everyone knows someone who’s been affected. A person could play any sport and potentially suffer a concussion. Moreover, brain injuries are fairly common off the field or court, as well.

Ranging from mild to severe, each injury is different. Though wide ranging in intensity, every concussion needs to be treated with the same seriousness. Everyone’s body is different. Therefore, we don’t always know what to expect.

The brain is our body’s most valuable possession. It controls our movements and our thoughts. Without it nothing would be possible.

Experts and athletes alike are working to better comprehend the implications of traumatic brain injury. In fact, Western New York is home to some of the nation’s top medical experts. Well-respected educational communities such as the University at Buffalo, Canisius College, Niagara University and Daemen College make the Buffalo area a veritable wealth of expertise and research. Moreover, athletic ability isn’t in short supply, either. Professional teams like the Bills, Sabres and Bandits are only a few of the area’s many teams. Put these things together and you have a potent combination. Western New York is on the cutting edge when it comes to traumatic brain injury.

A dynamic duo

Two of our area’s top experts spoke with NeXt on the issue of traumatic brain injury. Dr. John Leddy of the University at Buffalo is an internationally renowned doctor specializing in sports medicine and concussion. He has repeatedly been named one of the nation’s top doctors and is Castle Connolly’s Top Doctor of 2016. In his research, Leddy continues to work toward better brain injury understanding and optimal recovery time.

Peter Herbst is a physical therapist and athletic trainer. A Kaleida employee at Buffalo Therapy Services, he is perhaps the area’s premier physical therapist. Specializing in neck and brain rehabilitation, Herbst comprehends the relationship between the human body’s most crucial and complex aspects. With a seemingly endless list of experience, Herbst works as a trainer for many of Western New York’s foremost athletic programs.

What exactly is a concussion?

You’ll be surprised to learn there is no single accepted definition. In fact, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, there are more than 42 consensus-based profiles.

“The difficulty in assessing a concussion is that we do not have a definitive test that can tell us a concussion has taken place,” says Herbst. “The brain appears normal on MRI and CT scans, blood tests and electrical (analysis) of brain activity.”

Most of the tools used to diagnose a concussion are obtained through patient questioning and physical examination.

“The clinical signs are often subtle and difficult to detect, (even) with existing assessment tools,” Herbst says. “Ongoing research is attempting to create more definitive tests.”

Overall, medical understanding of traumatic brain injury has changed dramatically. Even over the past several years, research findings have advanced the knowledge base tremendously. While there are many different classifications and accepted definitions, Leddy sums things up well.

“A concussion is a temporary interruption of brain function by traumatic force to the head. (This) creates a disturbance in the ability to think, balance, coordinate one’s eyes, etc. …”

It’s important to note that concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are relatively synonymous. A concussion generally refers to what is known as a “mild traumatic brain injury.” This type of injury is only considered mild because it is not usually life threatening. Nevertheless. symptoms vary in severity and repeated injury has more serious implications.

It’s often assumed that in order to suffer a brain injury a person must bump his/her head on something. While hitting your head can certainly result in brain injury, this is not the only way you can sustain such an injury.

“It can occur simply from a quick acceleration or deceleration of the head upon the neck. (This) results in altered brain function,” says Herbst. “The brain controls all of the body’s systems, and therefore injury to the brain from a concussion can have a profound effect on any of these systems.”

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of a brain injury are wide ranging. They can appear strange and seemingly unrelated at times. Because the brain controls such a vast number of functions, it’s difficult to anticipate how a particular person may feel.

“(Symptoms include) but are not limited to: headache, dizziness, blurry or double vision, nausea, ringing in the ears, memory issues, difficulty thinking and processing information, sensitivity to noise or light, irritability and overtly emotional responses. (These things) can all be reported after sustaining a concussion,” says Herbst.

People sometimes assume that athletes must throw up in order to have a concussion, but this is simply not the case. Symptoms of brain injury can be subtle, especially when disorientation clouds perception.

Recovery protocol

The recovery process is different for every person. There are no specific milestones that afflicted people experience. However, there is a protocol proven to alleviate symptoms and promote healing.

“Initially it is rest. The thing to do if you have symptoms like headache, nausea, confusion is to rest,” says Leddy. “After the initial period of rest, 3 to 4 days and not too much physical or cognitive stimulation, you can resume more activity – but pay attention to when the symptoms escalate. (We) call this your threshold. Avoid re-injury situations but get back to (more normal life activities).”

Most studies show that the majority of people recover within four weeks.

Up until recently, people have been told to push through concussion symptoms.

“Many athletes wish to ‘stay in the game,’” Herbst says. “They want to appear tough and they do not want to let their coach or teammates down. Attitudes are changing and coaches, parents and athletes are starting to realize the significance of a concussion.”

For people post-injury, one of the biggest challenges is to pace themselves. It’s paramount to limit stimulation, but taking a break from physical and mental activity can be difficult.

“If they try to push through, they’re going to experience more symptoms,” says Leddy. This often means no television or other highly visually stimulating devices like smartphones or tablets. Work, school studying and exercise also have to be put on hold.

Each year new research findings expand our medical knowledge base, illuminating new information that was previously undiscovered. Understandably, when it comes to concussions, our collective point of view has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years.

“The important message to get across is to know what the signs and symptoms of a concussion are,” says Leddy. “Come out and don’t go back in until you’re cleared by a doctor or trainer.”

Likewise, “different sports have different risks. The contact and collision sports have the most risk. But you can get a concussion in any sport,” Leddy adds.

“If you can fall down and hit your head, you can get a concussion.”

At the end of the day, it comes down to this, “(We) can’t eliminate the risk of concussion from contact-oriented sports, but (we) can lessen the risk,” he says.

By taking the time to understand basic signs, symptoms and practices, we can protect ourselves. Ignoring how your body feels does nothing to aid in the healing process. The best thing you can do is listen to your body. Focus on what works for you. No game is worth the permanent injuries that can result from ignoring a concussion.

Landin Murphy is a 2015 graduate of St. Mary’s High School. He is currently enrolled at Empire State College.

Between 1.6 and 3.8 million Americans suffer sports-related brain injuries each year – Brain Injury Research Institute