I am reading Concussion – the novel by Jeanne Marie Laskas upon which the film starring Will Smith is based – released on Christmas day 2015. Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu – forensic pathologist who first published the startling details of changes in the brains of those who suffer repeat head trauma. I am struck by the David and Goliath nature of the task – bringing medical discovery to the mainstream marketplace and the adversarial response of the medical establishment and the corporate giant National Football League.
There are still people in the brain injury field who attempt to discredit Dr. Omalu and the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Indeed, the affliction did not begin with NFL football. I am sure over the years people with repeated concussions and subclinical injuries exhibited similar pathology when their autopsied brains were studied. Aging boxers have been known to exhibit soft neurological signs even Parkinson’s disease. An early study may have chronicled their symptoms as a common sequelae of boxers who experienced a career of getting blows to the head. Dr. Omalu implored the medical establishment to take notice of the incidence of depression, substance abuse and suicide among retired NFL players that may be correlated with the findings from autopsy studies of players who died as middle-aged men.
I have observed first hand just how difficult it has been selling concussion management to schools, coaches, and athletic directors for over 15 years. In 1993, my interest in mild traumatic brain injury was first set in motion by a series of cases that were referred to me by a group of physicians with whom I was associated. I collected data for several months using emergency department statistics to come up with numbers of persons who were treated for mild traumatic brain injury. I was interested in pediatric patients. What I found in review of months of emergency department visits was that many cases were not coded for ‘brain injury’ because of other afflictions like lacerations, fractures, and more.
What’s more unless someone were brought into the emergency department with altered mental status or unconscious from head trauma the true incidence of injuries to the brain were not carefully recorded. Arguably, the reason for this was a tendency to wrongly believe that in the absence of a documented loss of consciousness there was no reason to think brain injury nor was there any real concern for those few cases who were seen for concussion – as long as there was no loss of consciousness. Yet I was seeing cases from car crashes, falls, and football injuries that were having prolonged recovery times who were never diagnosed with mild TBI.
The squeaky wheel – gets a referral
For those patients who managed to get referred to the neurologist or neuropsychologist the symptoms they experienced were debilitating and often quite severe. It was not always linked back to their concussion – sometimes addressed as psychological or even psychosomatic in etiology. We began to see that a subset of concussion or Mild TBI cases went on to have a very unexpected set of symptoms including headaches, sound/light sensitivity, poor concentration, mood changes, and more that lasted for weeks and months. 5-10 % of cases of concussion remain symptomatic 8 weeks after first becoming injured and require supportive therapy.
What is now diagnosed post-concussion syndrome or PCS was frankly dismissed as a psychiatric illness like depression or anxiety or even an attempt at malingering as an intentional attempt to gain compensation years ago. PCS has no visual markers on computer brain scans or currently available lab tests. Like concussion it is an invisible injury that renders many people unable to work. Headaches, neck pain, fatigue, visual changes, irritability, sensitivity to sound and light, depression, and poor sleep hygiene were common.
Some physicians even stated “the symptoms would likely get better once the law suits were settled” when making a referral to me. Over 20 years later, I sometimes meet with same misattribution but in general there is greater understanding of the potential long-term effects of concussion. Omalu warns us that repeated injuries have a cumulative impact on aging brains. His serendipitous findings has raised awareness of the neurologic malfunctioning that may take place when athletes are exposed to repeated blows to the head while playing football. Many have gone on to commit suicide.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the prescreening debut of the film Concussion a few days before it opened in Boston. It was sponsored by MomsTEAM. I was introduced to Brooke de Lench, Executive Director of MomsTEAM, Institute of Youth Sports Safety. He blog post was published in the Huffington Post the week before the film’s release. I enjoyed the film and found it a compelling caveat to my current knowledge and what I know to be true.
Sefton, M. (2014). Postconcusive Symptoms: Lingering symptoms following concussion. Blog post: https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/consultation/post-concussion-syndrome-pcs/. Taken December 26, 2015.
de Lench, B. (2015) Why I’m not a football apologist. Blog post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brooke-de-lench/why-im-not-a-football-apo_b_8855362.html. Taken 12-26-2015