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Out of the concussion dark room U of C experts, athletes discuss advances in concussion research

There is a path forward from the darkness of concussions, for both athletes who suffer them and for the larger sports world, say Calgary experts.

On Nov. 15, the University of Calgary (U of C)’s Integrated Concussion Research Program held a free panel discussion of researchers, advocates, and ex-athletes, titled “Concussion: Facts, Fiction and the Future.” 

Much of the audience, when surveyed, said they had experienced a concussion, while some were parents of children who had experienced or may experience concussions.

On the same day, the U of C announced a $9.4 million donation from the National Football League (NFL) to study concussions in high school football. The study will be led by Dr. Carolyn Emery, a specialist in pediatric rehabilitation and one of four U of C specialists on the panel.

Dr. Keith Yeates, a neuropsychologist specializing in pediatric brain injuries, said that the U of C was “[punching] above its weight” in concussion research. The U of C is one of just five universities in North America to receive the NFL funding. 

University of Calgary concussion panel lineup: Dr. Kathryn Schneider (far left), Dr. Victor Lun (holding mic), former star football player Jon Cornish (middle), and former Olympian speed skater Kristina Groves (far right) at a public panel on concussion research, held at the University of Calgary’s MacEwan Hall on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Photo by Alex Hamilton)

The NFL, however, has faced what many call an existential threat since the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in many retired players. 

The NFL, and, recently, the National Hockey League, settled lawsuits alleging that they failed to inform players of the dangers of CTE, which has been correlated with many early deaths of retired players.

Yeates noted that the number of children being admitted to the emergency room for concussions has doubled, reflecting an increased awareness among parents.

In response to an audience question about the future of football, Calgary Stampeders star running back Jon Cornish said that the sport could be fixed from within.

“Do I think the game of football is inherently dangerous for your brain? I don’t,” he said.

Cornish noted that his 2014 concussion – a major factor in his early retirement the next season at age 29 – was caused by an illegal, clothesline headshot by linebacker Kyries Hebert.

At the time, Hebert only received a fine, and, later, a one-game suspension for a similar hit.

“If you keep allowing plays that cause concussions, you won’t have a sport anymore,” said Cornish.

Another concussion victim echoed the ex-CFL star’s comments.

Ash Kolstad, a U of C graduate student, received his second concussion at age 12 after an opposing hockey player hit him in the neck from behind. The player got a two-minute penalty, but Kolstad still has symptoms nine years later, including headaches and troubles sleeping and concentrating.

Visiting nine specialists, Kolstad missed a year of school and had to give up hockey.

Cornish said that dangerous players should be heavily punished, and, more importantly be educated that dangerous hits can “drastically alter another person’s life.”

“We’re not trying to get youth to stop playing sports,” said Kolstad.

Gordon Stringer said that his daughter, Rowan, died as the result of an illegal rugby hit, for which the perpetrator had been let off with a warning earlier.

But the tragic death of Rowan Stringer mainly shows that authorities outside the sport are required.

In 2013, Rowan died after suffering three concussions in five days playing rugby, causing a fatal condition known as second-impact syndrome.

Stringer successfully lobbied the Ontario government to pass Rowan’s Law, establishing firm return-to-play and return-to-school protocols after concussions. The law came after a government inquest found her death was preventable.

A possible factor in Rowan’s death was her potentially covering up her symptoms and continuing to play with a concussion. Stringer noted athletes can’t always be relied on to spell out their symptoms. Under Rowan’s Law, athletes are immediately removed from play when a concussion is suspected.

Yeates noted that this was not the first time such tragedy prompted political action, as all 50 U.S. states have concussion-related legislation. 

Emery added that the NFL donation would “help ensure other families don’t have to go through” what Stringer did.

According to Yeates, legislation has both has increased the diagnosis of concussions and reduced the number of second concussions.

However, some current science was criticized by the panel. 

“A lot of stuff being advertised doesn’t work,” said Yeates.

But beyond the big-picture questions, the actual treatment of concussions has advanced in a positive way too.

Stephanie Deighton, left, and Vivian Kwan, both University of Calgary (U of C) clinical neuropsychologist Ph.D. students, after a public panel discussion on concussions, held at the U of C on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. The panel was titled “Concussion: Facts, Fiction and the Future”. (Photo by Alex Hamilton)

Dr. Victor Lun, who works for the U of C Dinos football and Canadian long-track speed-skating teams, said that concussed players are now generally prescribed to be more active within 24-48 hours. In the past, there was an emphasis on sending players to dark, quiet rooms.

Dr. Katryn Schneider of the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre noted that concussions are a “heterogeneous injury,” presenting in a variety of ways, and that everything needs to be treated together.

This includes the mental side. Cornish and Kolstad noted they had to be treated for anxiety. 

Despite the progress, Yeates acknowledged the long road to go.

He said that it can take up to 10 years for research to affect clinical practice.

“Generally, education in [concussions] in the medical community is quite lacking,” he added.

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