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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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

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

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

Worthwhile educational video brings concussion to life

WESTBOROUGH, MA These educational videos are posted by the National Academy of Neuropsychology and offer viewers the personal stories of elite athletes – many of them are nationally
Dr Sefton
Michael Sefton (right) with former Boston Bruins player teaching young hockey players about concussion
known.  In my practice I have learned that concussion impacts the younger athlete with more unpredictable outcomes and a longer recovery.  I have worked with professional and college athletes and have come to know that management of these players is important.  Light exertion should be part of their recovery.  Individualized return to play protocols are designed for those who suffer a second or third concussion.  If this occurs within a single season most athletes are encouraged to shut it down allowing time for complete recovery before competing at 100 percent.
See these videos and Concussion 101 – Dr. Mike Evans interesting take of this injury.

 


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National Academy of Neuropsychology posts educational video

 

New Biofeedback protocol: Expanded Service for Brain Injury and Trauma

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Biograph instrument showing paced breathing protocol by Thought Technologies

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 1, 2016  The Neuropsychology Service at WRH has added both physiologic and EEG biofeedback to the service for those afflicted with concussion, TBI, and trauma. The protocol involves heart rate variability and controlled or paced breathing as a means of gaining enhanced resonance in the autonomic nervous system.  Autonomic storming is a common reaction to traumatic brain injury and can be debilitating over and above the structural changes that impact condition and behavior. It is not new and has utility in treating anxiety and other stress-related conditions.  The protocol is designed to activate the body’s parasympathetic function as a “quieting mechanism” – to put the brakes on for relief and a variety of physical symptoms including pain, irritability, and depression.  The “protocol quickly assists in helping patients find a balance or resonance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems in their 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.  Patients are urged to have at least 10 sessions of HRV biofeedback and may practice at home between sessions.  Diet and exercise are important parts of recovery from TBI, concussion, and other pain-related syndromes. Dr. Sefton is certified in biofeedback including neurofeedback and is a Certified Brain Injury Specialist.  Contact Dr. Sefton for more information of this protocol or an appointment 508-871-2077.

What to expect with first concussion?

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 21, 2016 Here is a blog that I first published in September 2013 when I first started to write this blog.  I occasionally am asked to “put up” a blog post that was previously published.  I resist this out of fear of growing irrelevant.  In any case, this blog cites some of the concerns people have when a child is diagnosed with concussion for the first time.  What can you expect?  I think it is a reasonable post that I will update with the current standard of care. Here are some of my early thoughts and those that are new.

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Student athletes experience fatigue and decreased mental endurance

“I remember when my son was playing ice hockey.  He was 12 or 13 years old.  He was hit at center ice near the bench.  The opposing playing went low hitting Casey – toppling him head over heels.  He managed to get right up but had rubber legs and skated away from the bench not toward the bench and the safety of his coaches.”  Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

WHAT TO EXPECT ?

The first concussion results in a wide range of responses from players, parents, and coaches.  Some result in an ambulance ride to the local trauma center.  Whenever an athlete is suspected to have sustained a head or neck injury his spinal cord needs to be held at midline so that he may be immobilized.  This results in the placement of a cervical collar and usually being strapped to a long board and can be a scary process for a young athlete.  Yet most concussions do not require advanced life support for their management. While working in the ambulance I have taken care of many players with concussion – all of whom did just fine.

Shortly after injury and usually prior to EMS arrival someone may assess the injured athlete at rink side or in the locker room.  It is commonplace to use an assessment tool like the SCAT to measure the athlete’s orientation, awareness, concentration, and short-term memory.  A concussion does not require that an athlete be knocked unconscious to signal an event has occurred – most concussions do not result in unconsciousness.  Remember this if you ever have a son or daughter with a concussion.

What is most common is post-injury confusion, irregular balance, inattention, and decreased short-term memory.  Some athletes become emotional and cry.  This usually results from confusion and not understanding what has happened.  This may be limited if a parent or coach is with the player in the ambulance or hospital.

Once the ambulance hands of your son or daughter to the emergency department nurses he or she is likely going to have an x-ray of the head and neck and probably a C-T scan of the brain to rule out fracture and intracranial injury.  Sometimes lab studies are undertaken.  These tests are frequently negative in spite of active concussion.  Some parents leave with the false sense that nothing has happened to their child.  Why?

The answer to concussion lies in the metabolic cascade – a shift in neural transmission and the onset of reduced efficiency between centers of the brain.  Structurally the brain is uninjured but its intracellular transport system may be temporarily corrupt. This hallmark injury is difficult to document in the ED but clinically results in cognitive slowing and some physical signs like sensitivity to sound and light, headache, fatigue, irritability, and often poor balance and memory.  The symptoms frequently can be measured for 7-10 days before they are fully healed.  Athletes should not return to play before they are fully healed and cleared by a physician.

My first personal experience turned out well thankfully.  Casey underwent the million dollar work-up at the hospital and each test was normal.  We were given written instruction for what to watch in the unlikely event he was bleeding into his brain, somnolence, seizure, vomiting followed by unresponsiveness.  None of this occurred.  Our son was held off the ice for 2 weeks before he returned to practice.  He had about 3 days where he was not himself – a normally talkative, curious boy.  During his recovery he rested and was not permitted to use the many video game systems we own.  He needed to rest.  Slowly as we could see he was more himself he was given back a wide range of activities like attending the full school day.

Parents can expect a comprehensive evaluation when student athletes are injured from concussion.  Post-injury neurocognitive testing is sometimes recommended.  My son took 2 post-injury ImPACT tests until he reached his baseline.  By then he was feeling fine and beginning step one of the return-to -play protocol.  Some athletes require a few physical therapy sessions for balance, vestibular functions and proprioception.  These can be arranged by the pediatrician or brain injury specialist.  Consultation with school nurses and teachers should be considered given the reduction in cognitive functions like: attention.  Some athletes return to school for half days during the acute recovery from concussion.  I have written education plans for recovering students to have reduced homework load, delay all tests until recovery, early release, and well-timed rest breaks.  A small subset of injured players require more prolonged care and go on to develop post-concussion syndrome.  This results when symptoms persist beyond the normal trajectory of recovery.  In most cases, when an athlete has symptoms lasting over 6 months one can begin to think about post-concussion syndrome.  With effectice management and planning most athletes heal and recover from concussion without complication.  They should not be rushed and post-injury return-to-play plans should be addressed.  No player should go from zero play to tournament play without first undergoing a step-by-step protocol to make certain symptoms do not recur with exertion.