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

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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 msefton@qmail.qcc.edu

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 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

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.

NFL yields to pressure acknowledging link to CTE

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Bennet Omalu, M.D. a pathologist who is given credit for first identifying the signs of CTE in brain of NFL player  (PHOTO Google images)

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 15, 2016 In a published article headlining the BBC web pages the NFL has acknowledged that a link exists between repeated concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a deadly brain disease resulting in depression, memory loss, and erratic behavior. Only 50 days ago the NFL’s hired “expert” Mitch Berger, M.D., a neurosurgeon claimed that no link had been established between hits in football and the chronic brain disease leading to death.

This is the first time the NFL has acknowledged that such a link exists. Why are they now acknowledging what science has accepted years ago?

In Boston, neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee unequivocally states that a correlation between concussive and subconcussive blows to the head has resulted in CTE in 90 of 94 brains she has examined – all from NFL players who have died and donated their brains to the Boston University Brain Bank. “The Boston Globe features this story as well today” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D. “I have heard Dr. McKee and her colleagues report these findings since they examined the first series of brains including the brain of former N.E. Patriot Junior Seau who committed suicide shortly after his retirement from football.” The link has been well established for over 5 years but denied by NFL medical experts and league president Roger Goodell.  The NFL Player’s Association sued Goodell and the NFL for hiding the dangers associated with concussion in 2014.  The major motion picture Concussion starring Will Smith as real life physician Bennet Omalu was overlooked for an Oscar nomination in 2015.  Nevertheless, the movie brought many of the NFL’s secrets about concussion out for all to see.


This link will take the reader to the BBC report.

Welcome back student athletes – Fall sports 2015!

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MIAA requires that all schools report prevalence of concussion on an annual basis

Westborough, MA August 18, 2015 Schools across the country are preparing student athletes to return to the fall sports gridiron.  This week each year I visit several public and private high schools to inform the parents’ of student athletes about the individual concussion programs that each school offers.  Most schools have policies that require physician guided return to play.  As a neuropsychologist and certified school psychologist I want to point out that there is so much more to recovery than just getting back on the field of play.  A school re-entry plan should be put in place after a student athlete sustains a concussion.  This usually means one to three days off from school to allow the brain to heal.

Since July 2010 the MIAA – Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association – the governing body for pubic school athletics has required concussion education for coaches, parents, referees, and athletes themselves.  The idea is to inform everyone about the signs and symptoms of concussion.  Emphasis is now being placed on the athletes themselves to report a concussion before they risk greater injury by returning to play while still experiencing the symptoms of concussion.  The symptoms of concussion have been well described elsewhere including on this website and most parents have taken the online test that is mandated by the MIAA.

As a neuropsychologist in practice in Westborough I have been fortunate to work with excellent athletic trainers, school nurses, and pediatricians as a team providing baseline ImPACT testing, assessment of post-injury concussion, and carefully designed return-to-learn programs, and clearance for return-to-play.  I have assisted several Massachusetts and Rhode Island school districts with writing individual concussion policies that have addressed current “best practice” for dealing with student athletes who suffer head injuries in sport.

MIAA-1024x535The MIAA has begun to allow non-physicians to play a larger role in the return-to-play decisions.  The MIAA website has all of its concussion policies that are here on this link.  This will permit other practitioners with specialized training in concussion management the opportunity to develop return-to-learn plans and to clear an athlete for competition when they are ready.  Physician Assistants, Neuropsychologists, Nurse Practitioners, and some ATC Trainers can now write return to play plans with the appropriate training and careful consideration of each student’s needs.

Congratulations for all those student athletes who worked all summer at captain’s practices – running, skating, playing summer soccer, etc.  Good luck and be safe.  Contact me at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital for consultation after injury. My policy is to have injured players seen within 72 hours for updated neurocognitive testing and post-injury planning.  When symptoms exceed 7-10 days further assessment and consultation may be needed.  I encourage everyone to see Dr. Evans video posted below to learn more about recovery from concussion.  It takes a care team to help a student athlete get back to school and back to play in a safe way.  Stay in touch with team trainers, physicians, and your school nurse.

Concussion Video released August, 2014 that is interesting and funny by Dr. Mike Evans, a Canadian Internist

Check out Dr. Mike Evans Concussion 101 video – click here

Heart rate variability: Biofeedback options for Post-concussion Syndrome

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PHOTO: WebMD

WESTBOROUGH, MA August 3, 2015  Post-concussion Syndrome (PCS) effects about 5-10 percent of those who experience a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury. By definition it is diagnosed when patients fail to recover from their concussion in the expected 2-3 weeks or sometimes longer.  This happens for a variety of reasons that are not always readily apparent.  Sometimes the expectation of a quick recovery is thwarted by the return to full activity too soon, according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D Director of Neuropsychology at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.  For example, when returning to work after 2-3 days of rest one should not expect the brain to be fully healed.  As a result, a return-to-work plan is essential.  Post concussion syndrome is not common but as many as 10-14 percent of cases exceed the usual 7-10 day recovery period.

There are biofeedback protocols for post-concussion syndrome (PCS) that have been shown to improved the autonomic nervous system mismatch that often accompanies PCS.  Here at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital I have been using HRV entrainment to activate, or entrain the parasympathetic “braking” system that may directly lower the arousal associated with concussion including muscle tension, anxiety, elevated pulse, and suboptimal breathing.  The method uses paced breathing for greater autonomic resonance and has been shown effective with pain management, poorly deployed attention, ADHD, and peak performance training.

Heart rate variability is a measure of cardiovascular health (Conder and Conder, 2014).  A link has been demonstrated between traumatic brain injury, even concussion, and multiple organs including the heart (Cernak and Noble-Haeusslein, 2009). The effects of brain trauma impact structures deep within the brain including the brain stem.  These cerebral regions impact cardiac function and can lead to cardiac illness.

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Biofeedback console shown depicts HRV screen using paced breathing for greater autonomic resonance

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. Thayer and Lane (2009) propose a right prefrontal cortex as having a direct role in cardiac modulation. This results in decreased heart rate variability and often increased heart rate and a host of other physiologic signs that prolong the recovery from concussion. Williams et al. (2013) proposed a white matter hypothesis highlighting the connection between white matter pathways in the brain and interaction between the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system.  Autonomic dysfunction is a well established underpinning of elevated stress.  Hypertension is a leading cause of death around the world and may be attributed to the body’s abnormal response to external factors like stress.

“Traumatic brain injuries  or TBI can occur at any time while working, playing, driving, or riding a bike!  TBI is described as a public health problem that results from a sudden force being applied to the head and brain that results from high-speed acceleration-deceleration force coupled with secondary injuries from axonal shearing, cerebral edema, hypoxia, bleeding within the cranium, and autonomic dysfunction” (Sefton, 2014).  In cases of brain injury one might see autonomic storming as just described that results from trauma to regions of the brain that control primitive bodily functions like respiration, heart rate, and emotional regulation.

“The brain stem regulates heart rate and respiratory drive as well.  These functions are vital to survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system.” (Sefton, 2014)  The human stress response drives a growing imbalance of the autonomic nervous system.  Namely, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our innate fight-flight response is gradually accelerated adding to an influx of stress hormones like cortisol that can cause inflammation in the body.  Cortisol can also have negative impact on sleep, memory, and acts as an appetite stimulant (APA).  Scientists and physicians agree that chronic inflammation within the body can lead to failure in the affected systems like the heart.

Conder R. and Conder, A. (2014) Heart rate variability interventions for concussion and rehabilitation. Frontiers in Psychology, Review Article, August 2014, Volume 5.

American Psychological Association: cortisol. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Retrieved August 04, 2015, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cortisol

Sefton, M. (2014). Autonomic dysfunction: “Storming back from brain injury” Blog post. Retrieved August 6, 2015.

Thayer J. and Lane R. (2009). Claude Bernard and the heart-brain connection: further elaboration of a model of neurovisceral integration. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Review, 33, 81-88.