Physical therapists have known for decades that head injuries are serious cause for concern. However, it wasn’t until the Hollywood blockbuster “Concussion” hit theaters around Christmas that the masses responded to the terrifying side effects of concussions faced among football players.
As a therapist, there is no question that you help diagnose and treat a number of sports injuries. However, “Concussion” raises the question, how do you help those who view treatment as a sign of weakness in a sport where being tough is everything?
“We know many, many kids hit their heads playing sports. Why do some kids develop problems, and some don’t?” asked Dr. Mark Herceg, director of neuropsychology for the brain-injury unit at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y. “That’s the Holy Grail in all of this.”
So what is the difference between a Traumatic Brain Injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?
Concussions impair cognition, thought, mood, and balance. Immediate symptoms of a concussion include dizziness, difficulty with balance and coordination, nausea, increased sleepiness, double or blurred vision, sensitivity to light and sound, and slurred speech. Some emotional symptoms to be weary of include anxiety, irritability, depression, aggression, mood swings, restlessness, and changes in personality.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is an Alzheimer’s like disease that cannot be diagnosed in living people, which is why it is so difficult to determine which Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) will progress into CTE. Early symptoms of CTE include impaired thinking or memory, movement, sensation (e.g., vision or hearing), or emotional functioning (e.g., personality changes, depression).
How to Help Athletes with a Concussion
Develop a plan for rest and recovery: Limit physical activity until it is safe to return. A rest period helps the brain heal, and since no two concussions are the same, the time needed for recovery differs from case to case.
Vestibular Therapy: This type of therapy specifically focuses on restoring balance after a head injury by focusing on the three principle methods of
- Gaze stabilization
- Balance training
Ease anxiety: With motion pictures shedding light on concussions and other TBIs, athletes are becoming depressed, anxious, and nervous that they might develop CTE. Reassure patients that many cases of CTE are from professional athletes who sustain a more significant amount of head injuries when compared to minor league athletes.
Reduce headaches: Address the cause of headaches, and use specific treatments such as stretching, motion exercises, eye exercises, and electrical stimulation.
Ease athletes back to normal activity: Once strength and endurance is gained without unfavorable symptoms present, athletes can gradually begin returning to activities. Overloading the brain while the tissue is still healing may make symptoms return.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 2001 and 2009, an estimated 173,285 people under age 19 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for concussions related to sports and recreation activities. And, during the past five years, roughly 16 people in the United States have died from a traumatic head injury each year.
While there appears to be a correlation between head trauma and CTE, there is no evident relationship between the severity of an injury and the number of concussions. We’re not going to get rid of youth sports, we just need to implement more ways to keep children and other athletes safe.