By: Michael Mroziak, WNY Hockey Report
Nov 7, 2012
Awareness of the short-term and long-term effects of concussions on young athletes has grown exponentially in recent years. A Western New York-based campaign raising awareness of concussions in youth sports has also grown since its debut last year.
So, too, is the hockey tournament that raises funds for youth concussion research.
The Program for Understanding Childhood Concussion and Stroke, or PUCCS, will hold its second annual hockey tournament at Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, November 23 through 25.
“Last year this was a small one-day adult tournament. This year it’s going to be a three-day tournament with many youth teams as well as the adult teams,” said Dr. Elad Levy, Professor of Neurosurgery and Radiology at State University of New York at Buffalo and Founder and Chair of PUCCS.
Last year’s inaugural event raised more than $100,000 to support youth concussion research. Dr. Levy is hopeful this year’s bigger event will bring even more success – and support – for the continuing mission to properly identify and treat head traumas.
Accidents and injuries will happen. There simply is no elimination of them entirely. Knowing how to treat them when it happens is what doctors – and families – want to better understand.
“It’s really a timely and sensitive issue,” added Dr. Levy. “We’re seeing more and more high profile athletes suffering acute effects of concussions, as well as class action suits in the NFL and long-term effects of concussions.
“But now it’s becoming well positioned in the media. People are becoming aware and we see that trickling down, as always, from pros down to the youth and school sports level.”
Experts close to the field say they’ve learned more about concussions in the past ten years than they have in the decades before. Just what have they learned the most in recent times?
“I think understanding a little bit more about the injury and how it occurs,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Illinois. “And, the fact that there’s this period of what we call metabolic vulnerability, that the brain cells are vulnerable for a period of time. An injury on top of another one before the first one is healed is really where the long-term effects are.
“That’s why we really stress not returning a symptomatic player to play until he or she has cleared all the symptoms.”
Coming back too soon remains a serious problem in sports, both in youth and adult levels. In the past, hockey players might “get their bell rung” but would return to action much sooner than when they should. Some athletes, especially professionals, have downright hidden or lied about their status. Football player Troy Polamalu, for example, readily admitted in past interviews to lying about his condition to the medical staff for his Pittsburgh Steelers.
As he told the Dan Patrick Radio Show earlier this year: “When you get your bell rung they consider that a concussion — I wouldn’t … If that is considered a concussion, I’d say any football player at least records 50 to 100 concussions a year.”
Clearly there remains a sort of macho ethic among some athletes: Tough it out. Play through it. Some athletes who have done this did so at a time when they feared missing games due to a concussion might ultimately cost them their job. Experts, however, suggest that when it comes to head injuries, it’s time these athletes learn there’s a difference between tough and foolish and that missing a few games might save both your career and perhaps even your life. It means learning to accept a doctor’s opinion that one simply isn’t ready to play yet.
“I deal with patients with stroke and brain cancer all the time, so it’s not hard for me to tell them that because it’s the right thing for them to do,” said Dr. Bailes. “It is a difficult decision, a difficult thing for any athlete to have to lay off, especially when they don’t have a broken bone or swollen body part, but I think more than ever they realize the long-term implications of continuing to play or returning to play too early.”
Another part of the problem is the lack of a standard protocol, including local youth hockey, for addressing head injuries.
“Locally there really is no consistency and that’s a problem,” said Dr. Levy. “Some players come back when they feel like it. Some players come back when their pediatrician tells them they can come back… and that may be fine for some pediatricians who understand and are educated about concussions.
“Some players come back when they get full neurologic assessments. Some teams are doing baseline testing. Other teams aren’t. There’s really no consistency right now in Western New York and part of the agenda is to try to bring the organizations together and agree on a broad framework of safe return-to-play guidelines.”
Just as concussion research has progressed but has a long road ahead, so too does the related awareness campaign. PUCCS’ Dr. Levy was asked where the campaign goes from here. This year, he said, PUCCS wants to shift some of the focus from research to education. Current projects include production of an educational video for parents as well as published guidelines for a proper return to play.
“We’re trying now to penetrate the schools. We’re trying to branch out to other states – we’re talking to the people at Penn State now – and maybe trying to branch out into other sports.”