The results of postmortem examination of over 100 brains of NFL athletes are in

WESTBOROUGH,MA July 25, 2017 The laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine has recently completed its initial examination of over 100 brains donated by the family members of those athletes who have died because of marked behavior and personality changes attributed to playing football.  The results confirm the presence of destructive proteins that have come to be known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  This was first reported over 10 years ago and was featured in the movie Concussion released in 2015 starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, M.D. who first reported on the syndrome.
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What happens to the brain when concussed? See for yourself in CDC video just published

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 21, 2017  There has been a great deal of research published recently about the cumulative impact of concussion.  Every athlete who experiences a concussion has a unique trajectory toward recovery.  It is well-known that athlete’s who experience  a second or third concussion may be at risk for long-term cognitive symptoms unless they rest until the symptoms are fully resolved. It is now expected that each recovery is different and should be tailored for the presenting symptom profile and the athlete’s medical history. A combination of rest and controlled exertion seems to work best for recovery.  Balance and vestibular changes from concussion require physical therapy in the days after injury. We offer these services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital. In cases of second or third concussion the recovery can be very different and often prolonged.
There are dozens of You Tube videos that I have posted in these pages illustrating the brain as it becomes concussed. On my first website nearly 20 years ago I purchased a .gif program to illustrate the movement of the brain during a concussion – like the one below.  It cost me nearly $100 to download and post on my website.  Now they are available free of cost and easily posted to social media.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury resulting from force causing energy to pass through the brain resulting in the brain shaking within the skull.  A study published in January 2016 in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that preadolescent boys are at higher risk of concussion when playing on varsity ice hockey teams.  The study at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI also suggested that girls playing ice hockey who are heavier may be at greater risk for concussion.  On average, the preadolescent boys in the study took 54 days to become symptom free.
Here is a link to another very useful video produced by a Canadian physician Dr. Mike Evans. I often have families watch this 10 minute video before initiating our conversation.  The point is that the brain is seriously impacted by energy pulsating through the skull from whatever cause.  I have seen several snow boarders this winter. Spring sports usually see an uptick of concussions in lacrosse and girl’s softball.  Concussion can be expected to effect all cognitive functioning including concentration, speed of mental processing, problem solving, memory, and behavior.

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 encephalopathy?

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80-year old right handed woman with sepsis and hypoxemia

WESTBOROUGH, MA October 7, 2016 The clock of the week brings up an interesting question.  What is encephalopathy? I hear that all the time from patients and more likely, family members who are confused as to the definition of encephalopathy.  I will make an effort in this blog to provide some explanation for this.  Look at the clock and see that is quite confused.  Remember prior published clocks and the fact that the directions are exactly the same for every person.  “Draw the face of a clock, put all the numbers on it and set the hands for 11:10”.  Essentially it is a three step command that requires both attention and problem solving.  In prior published blogs and You Tube videos I have made an effort to illustrate the range of clocks given by patients of various diagnostic classifications.

Encephalopathy is a common manifestation in patients with sepsis (infectious illness) such as pneumonia and urinary track infection, delayed hemodialysis, and many others. In refers to brain dysfunction often due to multifactorial issues including metabolic and infectious causes.  According to the Health Line encephalopathy may be temporary or permanent.  The patient who created the illustrated drawing was very cooperative but subject to altered mental status when getting sick, fatigued or on dialysis days.  The treatment for encephalopathy depends on the underlying reason for the AMS but largely is treating the symptom picture to manage the patient comfortably.

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“I want you to make up a sentence…”

Symptoms of encephalopathy often begin rapidly and may be seen as confused behavior, decreased attention, and poor problem solving.  Neuropsychology services across the country are referred these patients in earnest in hope of tracking changes in their cognitive status and behavior.  The assessment process is lengthy.  At some point, patients are asked to make up a sentence containing a noun and a verb as part of the basic cognitive screening.  As you can see from the illustration below, this patient had difficulty with this task.  Almost any sentence will suffice but in this case the woman added the heart to represent the word ‘love’ and placed a smiley face at the bottom of her page to indicate her completion of the task.  Persons with encephalopathy often exhibit unusual limitations in their awareness of their condition and exhibit varying levels of confusion throughout the day.  Slowly these symptoms resolve – sometimes quite rapidly.  Just as rapidly, some patients are vulnerable to altered mental status at the first sign of infection.

Second Impact Syndrome: rare but often fatal

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25-year old Boxer Mike Towell  (BBC photo)
WESTBOROUGH, MA October 8, 2016 Second impact syndrome is a rare but generally catastrophic injury that results from a second blow to the head that immediately follows a concussive injury – often undiagnosed or an injury that was previously diagnosed but not fully healed. The second injury to an already damaged brain results in catastrophic swelling within the brain often incompatible with survival.  Scottish boxer Mike Trowell died of a severe brain injury occurring in a sanctioned boxing match in Glasgow, Scotland on September 29.
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. This leaves an athlete gravely injured unless immediate neurosurgical intervention can be provided (Bey & Ostick, 2009).  Sadly, even with the best care many patients with SIS succumb to their injuries within a few minutes. Most believe that concussions create a metabolic crisis in the brain that results in a gross change in cerebral efficiency – an inability to match the external cerebral energy demand – especially sporting activity at the elite level.
In general, if the brain fully heals an athlete is at no greater risk of concussion than someone who has never sustained a concussion.  However, when an athlete returns to play before he or she is fully healed they are at high risk for a second or third concussion and at risk for SIS. It is well know that there is a cumulative effect of injury to the brain with repeated trauma. In fact, repeated trauma results in a significant reduction in brain volume that can seriously reduce information processing speed and other neurocognitive functions according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015. The greater number of fights resulting in more blows to the head has a significant impact on speed of processing. Certainly a well established link between repeated head trauma and dementia, depression, and other signs of neurocognitive decline has been found in U.S. football players.
Boxer fatally injured with second impact that was sustained in a fight in Scotland recently.  Scottish Boxer Mike Towell was critically injured on September 30, 2016 during a fight with Dale Evans in Glasgow, Scotland.  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.  He was transported to the trauma center in Glasgow ultimately being placed on life support.  He lived 12 hours once the decision had been made to terminate life support.  His partner Chloe Ross reported that Towell had been experiencing headaches in the weeks prior to the fight that were attributed to stress.  Medical authorities may not have allowed Towell to fight had the recent history been known. Towell may have been highly vulnerable to concussion as a result of his boxing history and unique neurocognitive underpinning.  So when he stayed in the fight he unknowingly put himself at risk for lethal injury.
REFERENCES
Bey,T and Ostick, B. Second Impact Syndrome West J Emerg Med. 2009 Feb; 10(1): 6–10 Taken October 1, 2016
Loosemore, M., et al. Boxing injury epidemiology in the Great Britain team: a 5-year surveillance study of medically diagnosed injury incidence and outcome. British Journal of Sports Medicine doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094755.

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

Concussion Update at Whittier

 

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Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

WESTBOROUGH, MA September 28, 2016 There will be a free seminar offered at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough on Wednesday September 28, 2016 on Sports-related Concussion along with updated information about post concussion syndrome and its treatment.  The program is presented by Michael Sefton, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology and psychological services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital and certified brain injury specialist.  The program begins at 5:30 with a dinner being served.  Call WRH at 508-870-2222 to reserve your spot.