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Hope for the future: Local athletes find alternative that could shorten concussion recovery time

It was a split-second decision she’s made maybe a hundred times as a goalkeeper.

Junior Julia Whipple was in goal for the Hamburg high school soccer team. A crossing pass was headed toward the box along with one of her opponents. It was a one-on-one battle and Whipple saw two options: Go out and kick the play or lay out on the ground. She went to play the ball.

That’s when her head collided with the opposing player.

She hit the ground and immediately she knew something was wrong.

“I tried standing up but I was really dizzy,” Whipple said. “Something was wrong. Coach ran on to the field. I tried going back to the net. I started walking toward it and he’s like, ‘No, you’re coming with me.’ I was really nauseous. I almost threw up a few times. It was bad. It was scary.”

Whipple assumed her soccer season was done. A concussion would keep her out of practice and athletic activity for some time. But when she went for her diagnosis, she was asked if she wanted to participate in a study about recovery and concussions.

She joined up.

Three weeks later she was back on the field with her team.

Whipple is part of a study on concussions and teenagers conducted by University at Buffalo researchers at UBMD Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.

The study began in late 2015 and will continue through at least the end of 2016. Researchers are looking for a sample size of about 100 high school athletes.

Whipple’s participation began with her diagnosis of a concussion. She then was given a watch which would monitor her activity. She could not do any strenuous workouts but neither was she prescribed total rest. Whipple walked on a treadmill every day for 20 minutes. She walked very slowly. Her heart rate could not go above 100 beats per minute.

The prevailing philosophy on concussion recovery focuses on rest – no activity until the symptoms resolve. The study, being conducted at the University at Buffalo and in Winnipeg, is examining the idea that low-level exercise, such as walking on a treadmill, helps the brain recover better than simple rest.

“It is a current study of the use of controlled low-level exercise to promote recovery from sport-related concussion in adolescents,” said Dr. John Leddy, director of the UB Concussion Management Clinic. “The idea is to see if this promotes faster or better recovery from concussion than simply rest until symptoms resolve.

“We believe that low-level exercise actually improves the physiological brain dysfunction after concussion, improves mood and sleep, and begins a safe process of getting athletes back into shape after concussion.”

The process helped Camryn Sullivan get back on the court sooner. In December, the junior at Amherst High School was in a basketball game and setting up to take a charge as an opponent was attempting a layup. They collided. Sullivan hit the floor.

“I didn’t black out but I felt super dizzy and couldn’t get up,” Sullivan said. “I was pulled off the court by the trainer and the athletic director.”

After seeing Leddy, she enrolled in the study.

“I went through a test basically to see how much stress and what type of athletic workout my body could take without causing symptoms in my head,” Sullivan said. “It was very minimal. I walked on a treadmill every day for 20 minutes and I kept my heart rate below 90.

“Every day I watched my teammates practice and for three weeks the only thing I could do was walk on a treadmill. It was awful.”

It may have been awful for high school athletes to watch their friends fully functional in practice while they strolled on a treadmill, but controlling the intensity of the activity may be a key to recovery.

“The more common risk is that the athlete would do too much exercise too soon and exacerbate symptoms,” Leddy said. “That’s why we give them very specific instructions about what to do and how to progress the exercise. They wear a heart rate monitor. They are instructed to stop exercise that day if their symptoms increase. They can resume the next day.”

Sullivan was cleared to return after three weeks and she knows how fortunate her recovery was. “I have a lot of friends who went through a concussion and were out for six months with the same symptoms that I had,” Sullivan said. “I was only out three weeks. I think the study helped me.”

After concluding their participation with the study, both Sullivan and Whipple followed up with their high school athletic trainers and doctors before being cleared to play.

While both were back playing after three weeks, individual recovery can vary. Leddy said he knows of no cases where the symptoms became worse with this approach, provided that the protocol was done correctly.

Results of the study won’t be known until next year and though it could provide a new approach to concussion recovery, the exact nature of the application is still in exploration.

“The purpose of,” a randomized control trial “is that the investigator has no idea of the results until the end of the study,” Leddy said.

High school athletes who would like to participate in the study can contact the UB Concussion Management Clinic at 716-829-5499.


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