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Editorial: UB research duo makes leap forward in treating concussions

Concussions have become a scourge of youth sports. According to a 2017 report in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, roughly 300,000 high school athletes suffer from them each year. Northwestern University researchers found the number of diagnosed concussions for high schoolers doubled between 2005 and 2015.

Work being done at the University at Buffalo’s Concussion Management Clinic has the potential to change many young lives, as well as older ones, for the better.

For adults and children, the traditional treatment protocol for concussions was rest at home, with limited screen time. A study by two UB researchers, Dr. John Leddy and Dr. Barry Willer, suggests that an active approach to treatment, including exercise, can lead to quicker recoveries for concussed athletes.

Leddy and Willer, co-founders of the UB clinic, presented their findings in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics. Their study, employing 103 teenagers from Western New York and Canada from 2015-18, found teens will recover faster from sports-related concussions if they start aerobic exercise within a few days under medical supervision.

Leddy said the study is “further evidence of what we’ve been saying for a long time. Cocooning somebody – telling them to do nothing after a concussion – doesn’t really do much and may be harmful, whereas if you get them active at a moderate level that does not exacerbate their symptoms, that helps them recover.”

In athletics, football concussions grab much of the attention thanks to devastating brain damage suffered by many professional players after their careers. Many high-profile names were linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Cookie Gilchrist, an early star of the Buffalo Bills, was among the players diagnosed with CTE. Another was Justin Strzelczyk, a West Seneca native who played nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Strzelczyk died at age 36 in a 2004 car accident after he led state troopers on a highway chase.

Football also has a relatively high concussion rate for high school athletes, with girls soccer a close second. Girls basketball and boys wrestling also have fairly high incidences. Young female athletes as a whole are more prone to concussions than their male counterparts, statistics show.

Leddy defines a concussion as “a temporary interruption of brain function caused by traumatic force imparted to the head.”

The UB clinic has developed what’s known as the “Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test,” a form of stress test that measures a subject’s heartbeat during exercise. The doctors prescribe a dose of exercise based on the level at which the patient can tolerate it without concussion symptoms appearing.

We hate to use an overworked phrase, but this study looks like a game-changer.

Leddy and Willer have been testing their theories for a decade or more. In 2006, they helped Buffalo Sabres forward Tim Connolly recover from concussion symptoms in about four weeks. Now athletes from Europe, Australia and New Zealand have taken the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test to develop exercise plans to speed their recoveries from concussions.

Leddy and Willer plan further studies on how their protocol works with adults, and nonathletes.

“Sports-related concussions tend to be on the mildest end on the brain injury spectrum but if you had a similar severity of injury with a fall or car accident, I don’t see why this wouldn’t apply,” Leddy told The News.

The concussion studies being done on the South Campus is another demonstration of UB’s prominence as a research university producing work that resonates worldwide.

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