Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Concussion Conundrum - How to take care of our players

Amanda Kessel will miss the entire NCAA season due to concussion symptoms

When it was announced by the Pittsburgh Penguins in January of 2011 that star player Sidney Crosby had suffered a concussion and that he would be out indefinitely, NHL analysts both professional and amateur took to the airwaves and blogosphere to analyze the injury and its repercussions. It seemed that for every game Crosby missed, the speculation, rumours, and theories just intensified. An injury to a superstar player and league poster boy took the concussion epidemic from being a sweep-under-the-rug nuisance to being the most talked about news story in the sport. At one point "Crosby Concussion" was even given it's own spot on the TSN ticker.

Fast forward to 2014, and another star hockey player has suffered a concussion that will see them miss significant time. Yet somehow, this player's news has barely made headlines. The player's name is Amanda Kessel, and to most people, the name probably only rings a bell because of it's similarity to that of Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel. Yes, Amanda Kessel is Phil's sister. But she is also a star hockey player in her own rights. Amanda is a gold medalist at both the World Championships and the 4 Nations Cup tournaments. She was part of the silver medal winning Team USA at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Beyond the national team, she has led the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers to back-to-back NCAA titles, and she won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation's top female collegiate player in 2011.

The reason Kessel's injury is important is because of the implications it has on other female athletes. When we think of concussions, we think of them being sustained as the result of big men being hit by even bigger men. The reality is, concussions are sustained in all different ways by all different types of people. In fact, research suggests that female hockey players at the collegiate level are at a greater risk to suffer a concussion than their male counterparts [1]. And yet, concussions in female sports are routinely misdiagnosed and overlooked. From talking to fellow hockey players at various levels of the game, it is astounding to hear how many of them were prematurely cleared to return to the ice after having suffered a concussion. In the cases of a few players, they were back on the ice within minutes. This could have occurred for a variety of reasons. Maybe the concussion test was administered too soon after initial impact and symptoms hadn't yet surfaced. Or maybe the player misreported their symptoms to avoid being pulled from the game. In the sad case of some, symptoms were disregarded because the coach needed the player back on the ice. In a few cases, this hasty decision saw careers come to an untimely end.

So what can we all do to help ourselves, our teammates, and our players, not fall victim to this epidemic? The good news is, we can look out for one another without having to first become brain scientists. The Pocket Concussion Recognition Tool can be used by parents, coaches, or even fellow team mates as a way to determine the presence of a concussion. It involves a basic line of questioning, as well as just observing behaviours that the patient may be exhibiting. An alternative test, the SCAT 3 - Sport Concussion Assessment Tool - is to be used by medical professionals only. However, portions of it, like the basic memory questions for example, can be administered by anyone to help determine a player's well being. These tools are by no means a black and white way of determining the presence of a concussion, but they are a way of quickly evaluating symptoms in a setting where doctors and specialists may not be around.

The player's best interest should always be number one when determining whether or not they should be cleared to go back onto the ice. It is not about getting them back into the game without missing a shift. Any athlete will tell you, they'd rather miss a shift or a few games and get the care they require, because the alternative is that they miss a full season or possibly a career. It should be noted that any player with a suspected concussion should seek medical advice as soon as possible. But if the above mentioned tests can prevent players from being rushed back into action and save careers from coming to premature ends, it means the sports community has succeeded in looking after their own people.

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