Resilience needed after Concussion

WESTBOROUGH, MA May 2, 2018  At a meeting of the Sports Neuropsychology Society held in early May each year the topic of “resilience” emerged as a term referring to the physical and emotional response to adverse events. According to Sonia Coelho Mosch, Ph.D., “your body and mind can choose how to respond to the event with ‘I’m really screwed’ or you can change what you say to yourself with the expectation that you are going to overcome it” on Forbes.com.  Patients who obsess over every symptom may be those who go on to experience post-concussion syndrome.
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors” according to the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Mosch believes people who take responsibility for their injury and focus on intermediate goals for restoring themselves often recover quickly “as long as they do not focus on small symptoms and pathologize every internal feeling state.  She works with NHL pro hockey players as well as clinic patients who are referred for any number of possible injuries causing concussion e.g. car accident.  Positive outcomes are linked to handling the stressful event with positivity and the expectation for a positive outcome. The pro athletes more often than not express a strong willingness to do “whatever is necessary” to get back to work and take responsibility for their recovery. “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone” according to APA site.
At Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital we are often working with people who have been symptomatic for months or even years.  They come to Whittier not expecting to get better and believing they are truly sick and no one understands what they are going through. When told they must alter their expectations and begin to work towards better management of stress, physical mobility and light exercise, and nutritional health and well-being they sometimes become disenchanted and move on.
In the first meeting, I have had a patient tell me that he believed that he was dying and had started telling his friends as much.  These cases are very difficult to treat and require both physical and emotional support for successful outcome. Cognitive behavioral therapy works best along with both physiologic feedback and EEG neurofeedback for reduced sympathetic arousal – from stress hormones that have gone into overdrive.  A re-exertion plan along with physical therapy, aquatics, and mindfulness are components of a complete plan of action for recovery from concussion.

Wagner, R Neuropsychologist shares pro hockey players’ secrets to resilience. Forbes.com taken April 30, 2018
APA. Road to resilience. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx Taken 4-30-18.
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Despair and Self-destruction in elite athletes

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Washington State Tyler Hilinski ESPN photo
WESTBOROUGH, MA February 26, 2018 On January 16 the quarterback of the Washington State Cougars killed himself with a rifle he had taken from a friend.  So far a motive for his suicide has not been published.  Tyler Hilinski was 21-years old and a teammate of the son of former N.E. Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.  One might not expect that an elite athlete is susceptible to depression and even suicidal behavior.  From the outside these athletes have the world by a string and are catered to from early an age.  Elite athletes are among the one percent who become Olympians or high level collegiate athletes, and those who go on to become professional athletes.  But there is a dark side of the business of elite sports when athletes become depressed and too often go without treatment. They suffer in silence sometimes marginalized from teammates and family members.
Much has been published about several high-profile NFL players who have killed themselves and later had their brains autopsied only to be found to have the tell-tale markers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) only found post-mortem. Former San Diego Charger Junior Seau died in 2012, Dave Duerson a former Chicago Bear died in 2011, Mike Webster died in 2002 – all were found to have the post-mortem signs of CTE.  CTE is known to contribute to both wide mood swings and expressions of rage and violence as the disease progresses.  I published a post on Hernandez and other professional players earlier this year entitled CTE and its Violent Underpinning.  Recently, former N.E. Patriots player Aaron Hernandez, 27, killed himself in his jail cell and was diagnosed with CTE raising the specter of the role of CTE in the murders Hernandez was accused of committing.
 The case of Tyler Hilinski is different. Drew Bledsoe should be commended for his stand on mental illness and being strong enough to share his experience.  He is correct.  It is important for men to talk about feelings and they rarely do so.  In a Boston Globe interview Bledsoe unabashedly described his early experience with a sports psychologist when he needed someone to talk to.  He described it frankly “If you’ve got a sprained ankle, you go see the trainer. If you’ve got a cold, you go to the doctor. If you’re head’s not quite right, you need to go see someone.” Boston Globe February 4, 2018. An open-minded and resilient opinion in a time where stigma still exists about mental illness as character weakness.
In 2011, Tom Cavanaugh, a local player for the AHL Worcester Sharks ice hockey team jumped to his death after years of psychiatric torment that included several admissions to psychiatric hospitals for depression and ultimately schizophrenia. By outward appearances this Harvard graduate was on the fast track to NHL success.

“We have to get over the stigma associated with asking for help. We need to get to the point where we treat emotional distress the same way we treat other ailments.” The NCAA reports that the incidence of college athlete suicide attempts is quite low.  “There are very few cases of completed suicide. However, we do know what kinds of factors and stressors might lead to an attempted suicide, and we do know that participation in sports can actually protect against some of those stressors.” as reported by David Lester for the NCAA.
“Reaching out for help when we need it is NOT a sign of weakness,” wrote Drew Bledsoe Wednesday on Instagram. “Trusting your friends and asking for help is the ultimate sign of STRENGTH!!”        Former N.E. Patriots Drew Bledsoe, 2018
Male athletes are not alone in their silent grief and torment. Johanna Nilsson, a Swedish born Northern Arizona University athlete killed herself in 2013 after a highly successful career in track and cross-country both at NAU and internationally. There was no specific explanation or warning given off by Johanna Nilsson who was just 30 at the time of her death.  In 2014, Madison Hallorin a 19-year old University of Pennsylvania athlete jumped to her death after a period of depression.
Jim and Stacy Holleran, have launched the Madison Holleran Foundation in an effort to help high school and college students who suffer from depression. The organization’s mission is to “prevent suicides and to assist those in a crisis situation with phone numbers and resources that will assist them during their time in crisis” — building resilience in athletes is important not only for confidence for winning but to help manage the down and out times when even a win can be a downer.

“Madison was the happiest kid, you know, when she was happy. And if that person would understand what they are doing to their family and their friends and their extended friends, they would not choose suicide if they really understood that they would be gone forever.”  Jim Hollerin, 2015

Elite athletes train for their sport every day of their lives and in some cases feel a vague great “missing piece” that can slowly erode their sense of resilience and emotional coping. Drew Bledsoe recognized this and asked a team trainer for a ‘name’ during a time of stress. But it would be important for athletes to become familiar with the routine cognitive behavioral strategies for stress management including HRV – Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia and paced breathing for peak performance.

The Blaze (2015) Parents Release College Athlete’s Heartbreaking Suicide Note One Year After Her Shocking Death. Blog Post:  https://www.theblaze.com/news/2015/01/22/parents-release-college-athletes-heartbreaking-suicide-note-one-year-after-her-shocking-death Taken February 6, 2018
Lester, D. (2011) Mind, Body and Sport: Suicidal tendencies  An excerpt from the Sport Science Institute’s guide to understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness. http://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mind-body-and-sport-suicidal-tendencies Taken February 6, 2018

CTE and its violent underpining

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Google images – CTE
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 20, 2018 More is becoming known about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.  It is now able to be diagnosed prior to the death of the patient by identifying unique protein markers in the blood of those who have sustained multiple brain injuries.  Former professional wrestler Chris Benoit was found to have CTE after killing his wife and son before killing himself in 2007. But murder or other violence against others has not typically been associated with CTE until recently.  As recently as summer, 2017, the brain of former N.E. Patriots star Aaron Hernandez was also found to have signs of severe CTE raising the specter of its possible impact on his violent life and eventual death by suicide. I have posted post-mortem photos of his brain first published on the Boston University site in a prior blog on my Concussion site (Sefton, 2017).  See that post by clicking here.  It is now understood that an athlete need not have sustained numerous concussions in his career to be found to have CTE at time of death.  More so, the accumulation of repeated blows to the head – subconcussive force – is being implicated in the etiology of this complex disease process. So contact sports like football, rugby and ice hockey are being closely scrutinized by experts in concussion, athletic training and sports medicine.  Researchers at BU School of Medicine have reported that a protein known as CLL11 may be elevated in the brain and spinal fluid of athletes with a history of brain injury.  It holds some promise of being able to diagnose athletes before death.  This protein leads to elevate Tau protein a known cause of progressive brain damage associated with dementia.
In 2014, The K.C. Star reported that analysis of Belcher’s brain after he’d been exhumed revealed a key signature of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, best known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease found to cause dementia, confusion, depression and aggression). “Belcher’s murder-suicide is the worst possible example of domestic violence, and these findings come as the NFL is under attack for its handling of domestic violence.” (Mellinger, 2014 Kansas City Star). 
“CTE has been found to cause erratic and sometimes tragic behavior by some NFL players, perhaps most notably Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself last year. The disease, only recently diagnosable before death, has often been found in former and longtime football players.” Mellinger, 2014 K.C. Star
 Riding a bicycle is a leading cause of brain injury in childhood. Recently, CTE has not been diagnosable before death. It has been found over and over in former and longtime football players. Domestic violence behaviors cut across all socioeconomic strata.  They germinate in an environment of secrecy often early in courtship.  During this time abusive spouse slowly isolates his intimate partner from her support – family, friends, finances.  “In doing so there is a subtle but undeniable manipulation of control – usually coupled with threats and intimidation.  There is growing awareness that red flag behaviors precede DV and domestic violence homicide.  Things like pathological jealousy, forced sexual contact, manipulating friendships, detachment from members of immediate family and others are the early signs of domestic violence.” (Sefton, 2012)  Some believe that the most significant pre-incident red flag is whether or not the victim truly believes she is going to be killed by her intimate partner one day and that these victims are at most risk of death.

Sefton, M (2012) Athletes and Celebrities Not Immuned: Kansas City Chief’s player kills wife and self in act of DVH, Blog post December 1, 2014, taken December 28, 2017. 
Sefton, M. (2017). Brain and Behavior: B.U. scientist says Aaron Hernandez had CTE. Blog post, Nov 19, 2017 Taken December 28, 2017
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/nfl/kansas-city-chiefs/article2296030.html#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/vahe-gregorian/article187534063.html#storylink=cpy

CTE found in teenage brains by B.U. team

WESTBROUGH, MA January 18, 2018 The scientists studying the damaged brains of older athletes have had the opportunity to study brain damage in athletes who died from other causes.  In 4 such cases, there was evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that was not commensurate with the degree of brain trauma that was observed during their athletic careers according to Felice Freyer of the Boston Globe. This recent study was published in the journal Brain illustrates that the onset of CTE may be closer to onset of brain injury than first thought not much later in life.
“The report, published Thursday in the journal Brain, also provides what Goldstein called “the best evidence to date” supporting the theory that CTE is caused not just by concussions, but rather by any blow to the head, including mild impacts. Instead of diagnosing and responding to concussions, he said, coaches would do better to protect children from all hits to the head.” Felice Freyer – Boston Globe 1-8-18
The possibility of younger athletes developing CTE and the symptoms associated with this progressive disease is quite worrisome especially to parents.  It was always thought that CTE would develop later in life if at all. With the prospects of the disease having a much earlier onset the cost of CTE over a lifetime is incalculable in terms of medical costs and neuropsychological sequelae that may evolve in time. The true impact of this and the consequence for repeated, subclinical blows to the head is only now becoming clear.
Like dementia of the Alzheimer’s type the build up of tau protein underlies the changes associated with CTE. “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition bringing forth progressive tauopathy that occurs as a consequence of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury. We analysed post-mortem brains obtained from a cohort of 85 subjects with histories of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 68 subjects: all males, ranging in age from 17 to 98 years (mean 59.5 years), including 64 athletes, 21 military veterans (86% of whom were also athletes) and one individual who engaged in self-injurious head banging behavior” according to the journal Brain. McKee, A. et. al. 2017

McKee, A. et. al. (2017) The spectrum of disease in chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Brain, Volume 136, Issue 1, 1 January 2013, Pages 43–64, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/aws307

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.

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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 and Behavior: B.U. scientist says Aaron Hernandez had CTE

Westborough, MA November 18, 2017 The NFL has some explaining to do. Why are former athletes killing themselves and in some cases other people? As students studying the brain it was something special when you could make a correlation between an identified brain lesion and the behavior you are seeing.  I was in China in early November 2017 at a conference on RNA targeted therapy for cancer.  As the non-scientist in the group I was referred to as the clinician who saw the phenotype rather than the genotype – referring to the innumerable genetic underpinnings of cellular biology and changing science of modified nucleotides.  I understood this to have some meaningful interest to the faculty that consisted of 3 prior Nobel laureates and leading scientists in RNA targeted therapy.  So after sitting through hours of presentations I realize the importance of not making a rush to judgment about the cause of some predicted outcome. As a neuropsychologist we are asked to make assumptions about brain integrity after CNS infarcts and make educated predictions about the functional implication of focal lesions in brain.
Recently the scientists at Boston University announced the results of the post-mortem analysis of the brain of Aaron Hernandez, former N.E. Patriots receiver and convicted murderer.  Hernandez had his conviction expunged after he died while his case was on appeal. The 27-year old brain was highly suggestive of having the tell tale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE thought to be the result of repeated concussions and now realized as the result of hundreds – perhaps thousands of sub-concussive blows to the head that accumulate over time.  Hernandez’s brain was the youngest of the donated brains to be identified with advanced CTE. Hernandez played football for 17 years starting when he was a young boy. The question remains did the brain damage that was identified in the post-mortem analysis cause behavior change in Hernandez and could the murder of Odin Lloyd be attributed to the build up of dangerous tau protein in his brain?
“While no one can prove a causal link between Hernandez’s brain damage and his actions, there is little dispute that he displayed CTE symptoms associated with behavioral problems, such as aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, and suicide.”
Boston Globe Bob Hohler November 9, 2017
By history Aaron Hernandez was an angry, impulsive and violent teenager that his mother reported began when his father died suddenly. Coupled with this was a biological proclivity toward degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE.  Both are diagnosed only after the death of the victim. We know that brain-behavior relationships exist from research in stroke and traumatic brain injury where focal injuries result in specific and expected changes in behavior.  These often result from a disconnection between functional centers of the brain including limbic structures that link centers for emotional regulation and the frontal system that exerts inhibitory control over those emotions. The athlete’s who have donated their brain’s upon their death have almost universally exhibited changes in behavior including poor impulse control, depression, and anger.

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BU Medical School and WCVB images 2017

The state of knowledge and policy on concussion in Rugby Football Union

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Westborough, MA  August 15, 2017 Just as American’s have begun to understand the true impact of concussion and the risk associated with repeat concussion and other blows to the head, the Rugby Football Union has started to take a serious look at the problem with respect to the long-term consequence of brain injury.  According to the New York Times in April 2014 “a tidal wave of earnings” may confound the rightful medical response to concussion injuries and dominate the return to play decisions on behalf of athletes who are found to have concussion. The remove-from-competition protocol has not taken hold in European rugby where players are routinely returned to play after a 5 minute time out during which they are examined by team medical personnel. Most are back on the pitch within 5 minutes. I have seen college Rugby games where this precise “recovery” was the norm.  The NCAA has protocols for managing concussion but in some club sports these protocols are not followed.
In 2011, Ben Robinson, a 14-year old boy in Northern Ireland, died from second impact syndrome resulting from playing through a concussion. He returned to the game three times after first being injured in a high school rugby match.  Ultimately he died after collapsing on the rugby pitch. Second impact syndrome results from a repeat brain injury resulting in a metabolic “energy crisis” that interferes with brain function including maintaining homeostasis on a cellular level. I  have documented it in several published Word Press Human Behavior posts.
More recently Irish Boxer Mike Towell died from second impact syndrome hours after his fight much the same way as 14-year old Ben Robinson.  He was seriously injured early in the bout and knocked down.  His toughness and tenacity along with unacceptable referee decision making allowed him to return to the fight. “The assumption that rugby had a better handle on concussions than football, however, might have been flawed from the get-go. The most recent injury audit performed by England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) established that concussions in elite-level professional games were occurring at a rate of 13.4 per 1,000 player hours.” Bandidi, 2016
The NCAA protocol is cited here.  “Medical personnel with training in the diagnosis, treatment and initial management of acute concussion must be “available” at all NCAA varsity practices in the following contact/collision sports: basketball; equestrian; field hockey; football; ice hockey; lacrosse; pole vault; rugby; skiing; soccer; wrestling.” Female athletes are particularly vulnerable to concussion and tend to have longer recover times. Concussion is sometimes considered an invisible injury largely due to the absence of frank signs of injury on the outside of the head.
According to the BBC, Towell was knocked to the mat in the first round of a 10 round bout.  He was given a standing 8 count and continued the fight.  Some said he dominated the next two rounds when finally in the fifth round he was again knocked down and the fight was ended.  Michael Sefton blog 2016

Burns, J. NY Times, In Europe, Echoes of America as Concussions Spur Debate, April 5, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/sports/in-europe-echoes-of-america-as-concussions-spur-debate.html?_r=0  Taken June 13, 2017
Sefton, M. (2016) Second Impact Syndrome. https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/second-impact-syndrome-rare-but-often-fatal/ Taken August 7, 2017
Bandidi, P. (2016) Rugby, like NFL, doesnt have the conussion-issue figured out.  http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/16029747/rugby-nfl-concussion-issue-figured-out Taken August 7, 2017
NCAA Concussion Concussion Safety Protocol. Guidelines https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/2017SSI_ConcussionSafetyProtocolChecklist_20170322.pdf Taken August 8, 2017