Preventing Concussion whenever possible

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 20, 2018 I am frequently asked about helmets and those that claim to be protective against concussion.  As of this publication there are no helmets that unequivocally protect against the forces that impact the brain in the course of an athletic contest. The stunning Ted Talk video below reveals details about the protection offered by helmets today.  Concussion is described as occurring in lower brain centers not the surface of the brain as the CDC graphic describes.
“Players are rarely hit by a direct linear force.  They are struck from the side or oblique and the force causes the head to suddenly turn or twist a millisecond prior to the whiplash impact we see on television.”  Sefton, 2018
In fact, there is a newly designed mouth piece that has a built in gyroscope that is capable of measuring g-forces and rotation of the head resulting from head strikes.  Researchers now believe it is the rotational force that sends energy into the skull and brain that causes the greatest cognitive and behavioral changes in the event of a concussion. Players are rarely hit by a direct linear force.  They are struck from the side or oblique and the force causes the head to suddenly turn or twist a millisecond prior to the whiplash impact we see on television.

 

 

 

Link to Dr. Mike Evans Concussion 101 video

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TBI, concussion and headaches in females

headache-2-mbhi5p4ess5v9x1kbfpafgnr6lyhkdbydmq67h3pno.jpgWESTBOROUGH, MA March 15, 2018 Serious and chronic headaches are a frequent complaint of those recovering from mild traumatic brain injury.  “Headache is one of the most common symptoms after traumatic brain injury (often called “post-traumatic headache”). Over 30% of people report having headaches which continue long after injury.” (TBI and Headaches, 2010) They can be quite debilitating. The NCAA Headache Task force listed headaches as among the most debilitating symptoms in the aftermath of concussion.  Young women tend to have a higher incidence of post-concussive headaches than males.  There is treatment for post-concussive head pain.
Migraine headaches are three times more common in females than males.  Rates of emergency room visits related to traumatic brain injury (including concussions) among women almost doubled from 2001 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In my own practice here in Massachusetts I have seen more recurring headaches in females than in males. In addition, female athletes generally have a longer recovery course than some of the males I follow.  I will say that males are prone to abuse alcohol when recovering from concussion that may also be a confounding variable in the trajectory toward their normal baseline.
Individuals previously treated for headaches are at greater risk of both developing post-concussive headaches and for having chronic headaches following recovery from concussion.  These injuries can be caused by not only sports but also falls, car crashes, blunt trauma (getting hit on the head by an object), and assaults as noted in a 2016 Health.com report on women and concussion. I have worked with several high school athletes who had pre-injury headaches and received treatment for chronic headaches who went on to have an increased frequency of headaches after concussion. I worked with a tenured college professor who developed headaches from being hit with a basketball at her daughter’s middle school practice. This was shortly after being diagnosed with concussion from a prior head trauma.
American Olympian Lindsey Vonn suffered with the effects of concussion for months following a skiing accident in 2015  including chronic headaches.  The BBC recently featured 22-year old skier Rowan Cheshire who sustained a concussion 4 years ago that kept her from competing in the 2014 Olympic Games.  Cheshire had won the World Cup event one month prior to the Olympics in Sochi and suffered a severe concussion in a fall off the halfpipe. It was the first of two subsequent concussions over the next 3 years that caused severe side effects including migraine headaches and panic anxiety.  Cheshire worked closely with a sports psychologist during her recovery.
One reason for the difference between men and women in concussions is that women tend to have smaller neck and shoulder muscles allowing for greater whiplash from force striking the upper body.  Episodic headaches are usually set off by a single stressful situation or a build-up of stress. These are tension-related headaches which may be unrelated to concussion but whose frequency and intensity change following concussion or when under stressful life conditions. Nevertheless, unchecked stress and tension may contribute to an increased proclivity for head and neck pain and both respond very well to biofeedback and alternative interventions such as acupuncture and progressive relaxation. Daily strain can lead to chronic headaches. Coupled with concussion, stress can become inflammatory in terms of the frequency and intensity of headaches.
“Post traumatic headaches are seriously debilitating in terms of lost school and work days.  They are often a late symptom in the recovery from brain injury and concussion” Michael Sefton, 2018

Symptom presentation
In early childhood there is similarity between boys and girls in symptoms profile. This changes as children enter their growth spurt. “Puberty, which marks a significant developmental fork in the road for males and females, also marks a divergence for concussions. With its onset, females increasingly experience higher incidence of concussions, different and more severe symptoms, and are often slower to recover from the injury.” Treatments for post-concussion range from complete rest to gradual re-exertion, to physical therapy and more. There is a growing trend to slowly increase physical activity once symptoms resolve and I have seen a return of symptoms in cases where physical activity is premature and in cases of second or subsequent concussion.
One clear intervention for post-concussion headaches involves a paced-breathing protocol and neurofeedback that I have been using.  I teach and practice stress management using biofeedback instruments that have demonstrated reducing duration of headaches, reducing stress, and lowering sympathetic abnormalities including heart rate.  The goal of treatment is to reduce the body’s reactivity and normalize the autonomic system. “Fortunately, even if post-concussion headaches don’t get better in the first few weeks after concussion, most are better within 3 months and almost all are better within a year after injury” according to Heidi Blume, M.D., at the American Migraine Foundation.

Sefton, M. (2018) Abnormal Stress response from mTBI often sometimes leads to headaches. Response comment in Emergency Medicine Journal, Volume 34, Issue 12, February 23, 2018
Levine, H. (2016) The Truth about concussions and women. http://www.health.com/headaches-and-migraines/women-concussions
Roehr, B. (2016). Concussions Affect Women More Adversely Than Men: Differences between how females and males experience concussions suggest the need for gender-specific prevention and treatment strategies. Scientific American posted March, 2016. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/concussions-affect-women-more-adversely-than-men/ Taken February 28, 2018.
Lahz S, Bryant RA (1996). Incidence of chronic pain following
traumatic brain injury. Arch Phys Med Rehabil, 77(9),
889-891.
Blume, H. (2016). Headaches after Concussion. American Migraine Foundation.  https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/understanding-migraine/headaches-after-concussion/ Taken February 28, 2018

Once common treatment of concussion

Head injuries at the time were treated as mere nuisances. Players reacted to violent head blows by trying to blink away their blurred vision, shake the ringing from their skulls, and trundle back to their huddles, unless they were flagged by sideline doctors. Even then, they generally returned quickly to action.  Boston Globe October 2017

Neurological trauma and enduring change in survivors

Westborough, MA December 18, 2017 The British Medical Journal Lancet recently published a series of articles describing the long-term effects of brain trauma. The series is worth a serious read for those who are in the position to take care of trauma patients.

traumatic-brain-injury.jpg

There has been little change in our approach to handling the individual grind of caring for the TBI patient I must sadly admit.  Young and old it takes both patience and dedication to achieve the best outcomes with those we bring into our treatment continuum. “Survivors experience a substantial burden of physical, psychiatric, emotional, and cognitive disabilities, which disrupt the lives of individuals and their families, and pose huge costs to society” according the Lancet, 2017.  Many readers have read my post Updates in these pages where I have detailed well-known athletes like Formula 1 car driver Michael Schumacher and Mike Towell, the Irish boxer both of whom were seriously injured from TBI.  Towell died from injuries linked to second impact syndrome following a match in 2016.
Schumacher remains in a minimally conscious state in Switzerland.  He is conscious but does not speak or move about.  He requires 24 hour medical care and is living is a special suite adapted in his home that allows him to continue to receive the best care possible while being in his familiar setting surrounded by family and friends.  The cost of his care exceeds $ 100,000 per month.
Some reports suggest Mr. Trowell had sustained a brain injury in the early rounds of the fight.  “Essentially, “second impact syndrome” or SIS results from the brain’s inability to autoregulate cerebral perfusion pressure and swelling as a result of repeated cerebral trauma.” Sefton, 2016 on second impact syndrome and Mike Trowell
Autonomic regulation is the role of the brain stem that maintains the diurnal pattern of arousal for wakeful activity and sleep hygiene.  The brain stem regulates heart rate and respiratory drive as well.  These functions are vital to survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system.  The ANS functions as the brain and body’s alarm system signaling the need for fight-flight activation according to a Autonomic Storming post by Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
Lancet identifies the complexity of TBI and its multifactorial underpinning.  A growing number of patients are elderly that contribute to “heterogeneity of outcomes and consider ways forward for targeted management of severe TBI in the intensive care unit” as mentioned in the 2017 Lancet summary.  Improved management of TBI in the trauma centers and ICUs bring forth better rehabilitation candidates and better outcomes including return to home and eventually return to preinjury employment for many.  Surgical intervention crafted to decrease secondary injury to brain have been enhanced by improved diagnostic accumen, imaging and novel techniques such as radical craniectomy and cranioplasty for management of intracranial pressure and its associated edema.
The series also explains PSH or “autonomic storming” something that I have described in several posts and can be quite serious both in the trauma canter and later in the rehabilitation hospital   “Geert Meyfroidt and colleagues provide an overview of paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity, a consequence of acute brain injury, and discuss the promise of improved characterization and implications for management”. Damage to the system that regulates sympathetic and parasympathetic functioins due to traumatic brain injury can be unsettling for familiy members and clinicians alike. The recovering subject can have wild swings of autonomic arousal such as elevated heart rate – patients sometimes chug along at 140-160 while autonomic storming.  Paroxysmal changes in blood pressure may pose significant risk, respiratory rate may become tachypnic, patients frequent are febrile and may become excessively sweaty  as a consequence of autonomic dysfunction.  Patients in our rehabilitation frequently undergo repeated blood cultures and lab studies looking for a source of infection.  Many are returned to the trauma centers for additional brain imaging studies and cardiac monitoring that takes hours and is often unneccessary.  These procedures delay recovery and add confusion to the patient and his family.
The regulation of the secondary injuries such as paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity is essential for patient well-being and outcome measures including returning home and re-entering the work force. The Lancet series is a well written update on current brain injury treatment and management of this serious public health threat.

 Lancet Neuology (2017) Jun;16(6):452-464. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(17)30118-7. Traumatic Brain Injury. Taken 12-18-2017.

Brain, Concussion and Stress: Health effects and post-concussion syndrome

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Amygdala highlighted is over active when stress exists and raises the body’s threat level as shown in this BBC graphic
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 15, 2107 The human cost of stress has been well-studied and the effects of stress are a well-known cause of cardiovascular illness including heart attack and stoke.  It is now known that the brain plays a big role in all of this. The human stress response elevates heart functioning – especially blood pressure and normal heart rhythms in unhealthy ways.  Stress activates the amygdala in the brain by tricking it – as if some great threat exists.  People believe that the body’s autonomic nervous system can be thrown off after a concussion slowly becoming irregular resulting from an abnormal stress response. There is a deactivation of inhibitory neurons in the brain resulting in greater sympathetic activity. This involves progressive relaxation and guided imagery that can slowly lower the tension felt in the body.
Symptoms of concussion are known to elevate the sympathetic nervous system over time. Known as the fight-flight mechanism, stress activates the mechanism in the brain that prepares us each for battle.  This level of tension can only last for so long without needing a break. That is where the parasympathetic system comes in putting the brakes on the body allowing it to rest. The brain stem regulates heart rate and respiratory drive as well.  These functions are vital to survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system.
Study: Overactive system of emotional drive
Many believe that an overactive system in the brain results in the elevation of the autonomic nervous system. A Harvard study followed 300 patients for several years and found that those with an overactive amygdala were more likely to have cardiovascular disease and be at greater risk for stroke and heart attack. The amygdala is a tiny organ responsible for the emotions such as fear or pleasure.  It also plays a role in the systemic inflammatory response that may prolong the symptoms associated with concussion. “Heart experts said at-risk patients should be helped to manage stress” according to a BBC publication taken from Lancet.
The protocol I use involves paced breathing and heart rate entrainment as a way of putting the brakes on stress. But it takes time and American’s want instant fixes. Mindfulness requires self-monitoring and personal reflection.  If more people understood the health cost of stress and were able to identify high stress lifestyles then they might make behavioral changes that can lower the risk for cardiovascular disease later on.

The protocol quickly assists in helping patients find a balance or resonance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems in the body using controlled, paced, breathing and prototypic progressive relaxation” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Psychological and Neuropsychological services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.

In several blog posts I have illustrated the potential negative health effects of high stress and physical functioning for which I am providing biofeedback at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Massachusetts. This process helps put the brakes on the stress response and quiet the body.  The effects of concussion slowly elevate autonomic response adding to tension and physical malfunctioning. The biofeedback protocol helps lower the human cost of stress and the body’s inflammatory response and may lower feelings of tension and anxiety.  In doing so a rise in physical and emotional well-being may be expected.

BBC report http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38584975, taken January 14, 2017
WebMD post,  http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20170111/stress-ball-in-your-brain-may-be-key-to-heart-risks#2, taken January 14, 2017
Sefton, M. (2016) Coincident stress may contribute to post concussion symptoms, blog post, https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/coincident-stress-may-contribute-to-pcs/, taken January 14, 2017

What is post-concussion syndrome?

“The syndrome consists of musculoskeletal pain, headaches, sensitivity to sound and light, sleep disturbance, changes in memory and balance, anxiety and depression. The emotional impact of this leaves patients feeling alone and frustrated” Sefton, 2016

The likelihood of getting a concussion while playing sports is between 10-30 percent of high school and college athletes.  As many as 29 percent of these injured players may go on to experience post-concussion syndrome. It is important for team physicians, trainers, and primary care doctors to understand and treat people with lingering symptoms of concussion.

brain_pictureIn a blog post published in September it is noted that concussion is an invisible injury and recovery takes time – generally 2-3 weeks. The consequence to individual athletes or others recovering from car crash, falls, and any brain trauma can be debilitating and effect a few bodily systems. The emotional stress of lingering symptoms should not be underestimated. Whether it is a professional, elite student athlete or a salesman injured in a car crash there is an experience of stigma associated with the invisible injury of concussion. The emotional impact of this marginalizes patients often leaving them feeling alone and frustrated.

A multidisciplinary approach is best that allows for restoration of physical activity and acknowledgement of both physical and emotional symptoms. Pain management is a useful intervention including aquatics.  My approach to treatment includes biofeedback, education and psychotherapy.  This helps reduce the autonomic effects of acute stress and the inflammatory impact on the fight/flight response – including blood pressure, sleep, and rate of breathing.

Sefton, M. What is PCS: and why do I care? Blog post: https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/what-is-pcs-and-why-do-i-care/. Taken October 1, 2016.

What is PCS? And why do I care?

ART1WESTBOROUGH, MA  September 28, 2016 Postconcussion Syndrome is a complex disorder that can stymie many physicians because of the abundance of both physical and emotional symptoms. There are about 3-25 percent of patients who are diagnosed with concussion that go on to have a longer duration of symptoms – sometimes a year or more . That is quite a discrepancy in the prevalence of cases.
The PCS cases with whom I have worked having prolonged symptoms from concussion often experience both physical and emotional symptoms that can be debilitating. “Post-concussion syndrome is a complex disorder in which various symptoms — such as headaches, light and sound sensitivity and dizziness — last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion.” (Mayo Clinic)  If someone you know suffers from PCS the effects to a family system can be dramatic especially when the head of household can no longer go to work.  Whether it is a professional, elite student athlete or a salesman injured in a car crash there is an experience of stigma associated with the invisible injury of concussion. The emotional impact of this marginalizes patients often leaving them feeling alone and frustrated.
Sometimes vague physical symptoms create an overwhelming emotional response that comes from the lingering resentment patients feel when seeing doctors who seem unable to understand their needs. Sometimes the outward appearance of lingering concussion may appear to be solely a psychiatric condition rather than someone who is recovering from a brain injury. Some physicians unfairly believe prolonged symptoms may be linked to ongoing litigation.
In a blog published in December 2015, Concussion and PCS was discussed in some detail.  “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” (Sefton, 2015).  The long-term impact negatively impacts both physical and emotional functioning by slowly increasing autonomic activation and impact sleep, appetite, and emotional well-being.
When I am working with someone who has been symptomatic for months or more it is quite apparent how frustrated they can become. It is important for the patient to feel they are believed in the story they are telling. Their symptoms are real and in many cases life changing.  I realize that they have never received the proper education from experts to understand their concussion and its potential recovery course.  Someone with prolonged PCS can be difficult to work with because symptoms can be refractory to traditional therapy. The last thing they may want is to sit with a neuropsychologist and retrace their steps all the way back to the beginning of their symptoms or personal injury. A multidisciplinary approach is best for all involved and should include physical exertion that does not exacerbate existing symptoms (Makdissi, et al, 2016).
Meanwhile, there is a growing body of literature that links prolonged symptoms of concussion to major life stress that can imprint psychologically – like PTSD when the timing is right.
References
Mayo Clinic Website, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-concussion-syndrome/basics/definition/con-20032705. Taken September 28, 2016
Sefton, M. Concussion: physician’s once espoused a link to unresolved litigation. Blog post: https://wordpress.com/stats/insights/concussionassessment.wordpress.com Taken October 1, 2016.
Makdissi, et al. The difficult concussion patient. Br J Sports Med. 2013 Apr;47(5):308-13. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092255 Taken October 1, 2016