Multiple Sclerosis: And it’s insidious impact on thinking

WESTBOROUGH, MA May 15, 2017 Multiple Sclerosis is a demyelinating disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord of those so afflicted. MS is a disease that causes the immune system to attack the protective covering around the nerve fibers ( Many of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord are covered with a myelin sheath – something like insulation on wire.  This permits the instantaneous transmission of nerve impulses from one part of the body or brain to another. In patients suffering with MS their myelin is deficient sometimes having reduced efficiency or not working at all. It is a condition that for many gets better and gets worse.  As you can see from this image taken from Google images the myelin sheath is the outer layer or membrane of fatty Schwann cells and other neuroglial support cells. MS may be linked to a virus and/or immunological compromise but its true etiology is not known.
Google images
We see a fair number of persons afflicted with M.S. in the rehabilitation hospital here in Massachusetts. MS is known to be relapsing and remitting in its quality which adds to treatment complexity and frustration for patients. They are a fiercely independent group of people and I can certainly understand why that might be.  On some days they are able to get themselves out and into their cars for the drive to work something we might take for granted.  While on other days, they may have difficulty putting on their their shoes and making lunch.  Many are frustrated and angry that they cannot take care of themselves and sometimes wind up in our hospital getting physical therapy and other restorative therapies.  Aquatic therapy is a great resource we offer at Whittier in Westborough, MA.  I encourage people to become familiar with aquatic programs
Clock drawing by patient with early onset MS
in their area. They can provide support, pain management and effective physical therapy for those who may have limited energy resources.  Fatigue becomes a problem in nearly all patients who suffer with multiple sclerosis.  Cognitive changes are common in patients who experience long-term MS that sometimes make subtle changes in personality and all higher order problem solving, reasoning, and other executive functions.  Some believe there are distinct personality features in those with MS
In addition to frustration and anger, some patients are resistant to restorative solutions suggested by rehabilitation team members who want to help.  Some say “they want to do things their way” and resist rehabilitative suggestions that might offer energy conservation strategies or innovative methods for greater independence.  Medication is used to reduce inflammation associated with MS and prevent relapse. (2017) Taken May 6, 2017

Return to school: Psychologists also working in the trenches after concussion

WESTBOROUGH, MA May 1, 2017 The return to school following a brain injury should be carefully planned.  School nurses tend to be the point person for parents’ whose children are coming back to school after concussion.  But let’s not forget the school psychologist.  My wife, Mindy Sefton, Psy.D., is trained in concussion management and has crafted some of the best return-to-learn plans I have ever seen.  She works closely with the nurse and classroom teachers to be sure no student be placed at risk for failure. At her middle school there is a protocol for re-entry that is specific and tailored for individual students.
Students with acute concussion and those suffering with post concussion syndrome require assistance at school or risk falling behind their peers.  Some parents are not aware but it is true that when concussion sidelines and athlete he or she is highly vulnerable for school-related changes as well.  Schools or educational teams who are interested in offering a comprehensive concussion education program are encouraged to contact CAMP or Dr. Sefton directly for consultation. Student athletes often require support in school while recovering from concussion. Support protocols like reduced work, extra time for tests, and deferred projects are just three commonly prescribed accommodations.
 I am happy to help public schools with their protocols.  They are critically important for student success.  Individual programs can be integrated slowly on a team by team basis depending upon learning style, specific sport and unique student needs.  Dr. Sefton has specialized training in pediatric brain injury, concussion and neuropsychological assessment and is a member of the Academy of Brain Injury Specialists.  Training for coaches and trainers is available and recommended to identify updated return-to-play protocols and current standards of care.  Both web-based and individualized ImPACT testing is available for preseason and after injury assessment.  Return-to-play consultation is available with trainers and team physicians 24/7 at 508-579-0417 and email

School districts interested in using CAMP for supporting athletes injured while playing sports can contact Dr. Sefton at 508-579-0417.  Parents and physicians may call Dr. Sefton at any time to discuss individual injuries and school and sports  re-entry after injury. Post injury testing and neuropsychological consultation is also available. 

HeadacheReturn-to-Learn Care Plan
Some students who are injured playing in school sports may require a return to school care plan.  Dr. Sefton will consult with student, parents, and school personnel to assist with short-term accommodations in school that can assure for continued success in academic domains.  Not all children require changes in their educational programs but careful consideration of the child’s school functioning is essential.
Classroom teachers should be advised to monitor the student athlete for the following signs:
  • Increased problems paying attention/concentrating
  • Increased problems remembering/learning new information
  • Longer time required to complete tasks
  • Increase in physical symptoms (e.g., headache, fatigue) during schoolwork
  • Greater irritability, less tolerance for stressors

What happens if I return to play too soon?

WESTBOROUGH, MA  April 20, 2017 Whenever I meet someone who comes to me because of a recent concussion they will inevitably ask “what happens if I return to play too soon?” If it isn’t the athlete asking that question it might be their parent.  Ever since the era of awareness of concussion began people have been more apprehensive about their return to activity.  I recently took care of a basketball coach who was feeling better when she was hit in the back of the head with an errant basketball during the shoot around. Her symptoms returned with intensity and left her on the sideline for over a month.  People now accept that the cumulative effects of concussion can have lasting impact.
The consensus currently indicates that some activity during recovery is beneficial rather than 100 % rest as once espoused.  That activity would consist of physical therapy, exertion and balance training along with controlled cognitive exercise.  It is still recommended that recovering patients not overuse their computers, tablets, game systems, etc. Sleep and rest also remain an important component of the recovery plan especially when re-integrating into school or work.  If symptoms persist or worsen than I often suggest lessening the work load.  Most schools will write off some work assignments when necessary. Some students get quite anxious about the make-up requirements for classrooms work if they have missed days or weeks of school.
 “Concussive injury has the potential to derail the trajectory of normal development and is fully preventable,” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Neuropsychology at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA, US.

Concussion need not be the rite of spring

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 15, 2017 On March 15th across New England and most of the country high school spring sports take to the fields.  Well actually most of the lacrosse and softball teams start out in school gyms or field house.  Many actually rent out indoor playing fields to put in the hours needed to begin a rigorous new season.  The starting dates are closely watched by members of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association – MIAA.  It is the same thing with football and fall sports – August 20th the ritual first day of Fall sports practice.  In spite of these rituals and scores of other idiosyncrasies that teams share, concussion should not be an expected rite of passage for contact sports.  Yet some people are still not taking it seriously.
Michael Sefton, Ph.D. in 2017 photograph

“The protocol about which I write comes in sequence to the athlete being symptom free.  When this happens he or she may begin a return to play protocol that consists of systematic activities designed to slowly stress the athlete in an effort to be certain that no symptoms will return as the athlete exerts himself over a 5-step sequence that ends in a full contact practice.”
Michael Sefton
I posted a short blog in January 2017 about the role of a stepwise return to play protocol. Most schools expect this protocol and are often surprised when the parent of an injured student marches in with a note authorizing return to full participation by the pediatrician – as if this trumps anything the CDC has implemented as the standard of care.  This may now be the standard of care but is not being followed.  In the past month I have been asked to write return to play protocols for athletes who had already been cleared to play by their pediatrician.  You cannot have it both ways – either a player is held out until he is fully healed or he is at risk of prolonged debility and postconcussion syndrome if injured again during recovery.  When it comes to middle or high school students the greater risk is missing days or weeks of school.

Case study – 2017
Just recently I saw a 12-year old middle school boy who had sustained a moderate injury while snowboarding.  He had 2-3 weeks of significant symptoms including sensitivity to light and sound, headaches, irritability and changes in sleep pattern.  He had taken one week off from school and returned 1-2 hours daily until fully reintegrated with his classmates. By outward appearances he was doing all the right things and had returned to his travel soccer team. Yet he was still having symptoms and should have taken a more focused approach to exerting himself. His school was beginning to push him to complete missing assignments that was adding to his anxiety and irritability.  The child had been seen at a local concussion clinic who had cleared him for step 1 of the 5-step protocol. They prescribed the CDC 5 step protocol I have mentioned here but there was no in-school trainer to manage each step. This frequently falls on coaches or the school nurse. But by allowing him to exert himself and practice with his teammates he missed out of steps 2 and 3. His brain had not fully healed and was struggling to keep up with energy demand of   school, homework, make-up tests and soccer.  Concussion is an energy crisis resulting in less efficient processing and it was clear to me that he had not fully recovered from his moderate injury. He needed to start over and his parents heard this to be a set-back. They were protective of his emotional well-being and wanted him to be with his class and team mates. These are important considerations and must be figured into the recovery equation.

“There should be an understanding that no student may be expected to take tests – even state mandated achievement tests until they are fully recovered from their injuries. The failure to allow full recovery to take place prior to exerting the athlete places him or herself at risk for additional injury from second impact. Some students require a formal 504 support plan for the duration of their symptoms.” Sefton, 2014

In another case from spring soccer that I previously illustrated, a young high school boy was recovering and had still been having headaches.  Their question was: could he travel to Portugal and play against an elite high school?  They had been planning the trip for nearly a year.  His anxiety over missing the trip was palpable but the risk of playing against older and more developed athletes was against my advice.  He could attend the trip but not play.  I am unsure what they decided to do but I did not see them again.  For readers of this post I ask: Does it make sense to have an athlete who is still recovering to play at the elite level where competition is fierce and risk of injury is real? The 5-step protocol should not begin until the athlete is symptom free.  Some believe the athlete should be symptom free for one week prior to beginning the return to play protocol.  To see the CDC protocol click here.

Sefton, M (2017) Understanding Concussion: People are still not getting it. Blog post taken April 2, 2017
Sefton, M. (2014) Prolonged symptoms signal delayed healing. Blog post: Taken April 2, 2017

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.

Why play sports ? – Ask Morgan William


# 2 Morgan William photo


WESTBOROUGH, MA April 1, 2017 In my family playing sports has been a lifelong commitment.  There were plenty of times things did not go as hoped which can be heart breaking for student athletes and heart wrenching for supportive mom’s, dad’s and superfans everywhere.  The physical and psychological benefit of playing sports is well-known just ask any member of the Mississippi State Women’s Basketball team who knocked off the goliath UConn women who had won 111 games without a loss.  In fact, UConn defeated this same Mississippi State team by over 60 points in 2016.  Not so fast.
Congratulations go to 5-foot-5 Morgan William whose winning shot in overtime sealed the win and punched their ticket to the Women’s Division I Semifinal game next week. As exciting as the win may have been, the UConn women will go down in history as having the longest unbeaten streak in history.  The basketball program will be fine going forward – but it stings really bad right now in Storrs, CT.  Why play sports?  The highs and lows of competition teach us about success and failure.  Whether we win or not does not matter as long as we work together and leave nothing on the court – or ice.  Team work builds relationships and discipline – things needed for the real world. Even in Storrs, CT – home the the University of Connecticut amidst the tears and disbelief there is a lesson to be learned.  In this case no team should be taken for granted and no single player can do it all. But last night against UConn it was Mississippi State’s Morgan William’ turn to shine and put on a clinic.

“The training fosters both physical and psychological resilience to stress.”

Women’s sport has grown exponentially since Title IX was introduced that leveled the playing field for female athletes. The physical benefits include improved cardiovascular health and stress-endorphine responses are immeasurable. Psychological benefits include reducing distress, enhancing confidence in abilities and recognizing psychological responses that need the attention of a mental health professional. These benefits have positive implications for long-term health and the prevention of OSI.
Ask any member of the Mississippi State Women’s basketball why they play sports and they will tell you it is for all these reasons and for the chance to end an 111 game winning streak that no one would believe could happen. But it did!

Focused treatment depends on symptom profile

Prescribed rest—both physical and mental—is the standard treatment for concussion. But a growing body of evidence suggests that a more active, targeted approach might provide better outcomes for some patients, reports a special article in the December issue of Neurosurgery, official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS). The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.