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

CONCUSSION-SCHOOL LIAISON 2017
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

Concussion – Physicians once espoused a link to unresolved litigation

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Bennet Omalu, M.D. was first to recognize the impact of repetitive trauma and concussion PHOTO – The Trent
I am reading Concussion – the novel by Jeanne Marie Laskas upon which the film starring Will Smith is based – released on Christmas day 2015.  Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu – forensic pathologist who first published the startling details of changes in the brains of those who suffer repeat head trauma. I am struck by the David and Goliath nature of the task – bringing medical discovery to the mainstream marketplace and the adversarial response of the medical establishment and the corporate giant National Football League.
There are still people in the brain injury field who attempt to discredit Dr. Omalu and the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  Indeed, the affliction did not begin with NFL football.  I am sure over the years people with repeated concussions and subclinical injuries exhibited similar pathology when their autopsied brains were studied.  Aging boxers have been known to exhibit soft neurological signs even Parkinson’s disease.  An early study may have chronicled their symptoms as a common sequelae of boxers who experienced a career of getting blows to the head.  Dr. Omalu implored the medical establishment to take notice of the incidence of depression, substance abuse and suicide among retired NFL players that may be correlated with the findings from autopsy studies of players who died as middle-aged men.
I have observed first hand just how difficult it has been selling concussion management to schools, coaches, and athletic directors for over 15 years. In 1993, my interest in mild traumatic brain injury was first set in motion by a series of cases that were referred to me by a group of physicians with whom I was associated. I collected data for several months using emergency department statistics to come up with numbers of persons who were treated for mild traumatic brain injury. I was interested in pediatric patients. What I found in review of months of emergency department visits was that many cases were not coded for ‘brain injury’ because of other afflictions like lacerations, fractures, and more.
What’s more unless someone were brought into the emergency department with altered mental status or unconscious from head trauma the true incidence of injuries to the brain were not carefully recorded. Arguably, the reason for this was a tendency to wrongly believe that in the absence of a documented loss of consciousness there was no reason to think brain injury nor was there any real concern for those few cases who were seen for concussion – as long as there was no loss of consciousness. Yet I was seeing cases from car crashes, falls, and football injuries that were having prolonged recovery times who were never diagnosed with mild TBI.
The squeaky wheel – gets a referral
For those patients who managed to get referred to the neurologist or neuropsychologist the symptoms they experienced were debilitating and often quite severe. It was not always linked back to their concussion – sometimes addressed as psychological or even psychosomatic in etiology.  We began to see that a subset of concussion or Mild TBI cases went on to have a very unexpected set of symptoms including headaches, sound/light sensitivity, poor concentration, mood changes, and more that lasted for weeks and months. 5-10 % of cases of concussion remain symptomatic 8 weeks after first becoming injured and require supportive therapy.
What is now diagnosed post-concussion syndrome or PCS was frankly dismissed as a psychiatric illness like depression or anxiety or even an attempt at malingering as an intentional attempt to gain compensation years ago.  PCS has no visual markers on computer brain scans or currently available lab tests.  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.
Some physicians even stated “the symptoms would likely get better once the law suits were settled” when making a referral to me.  Over 20 years later, I sometimes meet with same misattribution but in general there is greater understanding of the potential long-term effects of concussion. Omalu warns us that repeated injuries have a cumulative impact on aging brains. His serendipitous findings has raised awareness of the neurologic malfunctioning that may take place when athletes are exposed to repeated blows to the head while playing football.  Many have gone on to commit suicide.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the prescreening debut of the film Concussion a few days before it opened in Boston.  It was sponsored by MomsTEAM.  I was introduced to Brooke de Lench, Executive Director of MomsTEAM, Institute of Youth Sports Safety. He blog post was published in the Huffington Post the week before the film’s release. I enjoyed the film and found it a compelling caveat to my current knowledge and what I know to be true.
Sefton, M. (2014). Postconcusive Symptoms: Lingering symptoms following concussion. Blog post: https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/consultation/post-concussion-syndrome-pcs/. Taken December 26, 2015.
de Lench, B. (2015) Why I’m not a football apologist. Blog post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brooke-de-lench/why-im-not-a-football-apo_b_8855362.html. Taken 12-26-2015

Making angels in the snow – Fall soft and leave no impression

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The trick is to get up leaving the perfect impression

WESTBOROUGH, MA The joy of falling in fresh clean snow is lost on no man or woman.  Making angels in the snow is a fun activity born in childhood that may be enjoyed by playful adults as well. We laughed at the Boston College Eagle men’s ice hockey player who joyously made snow angels on the ice after scoring a winning goal.  There have been snow angels on the snow covered turf in Foxborough, MA during a snowy N.E. Patriots football game as well. In November 2013, the Seattle University Red Hawks men’s Division I soccer teams won it’s first round match in the snow against Creighton.  As one might expect some euphoric players took it upon themselves to leave snow angels in their place.

Snow angels represent a child-like micromoment of joy that suggests freedom and whimsy. But there are times when snow and ice represent something other that feelings of joy.  When a person falls in snow they run the risk of traumatic brain injury from what may seem like a benign bump on the head.  Care should be taken for patients taking blood thinners as these can render them at increased risk for bleeding.

Gait Disturbance and loss of balance

The risk of falls grows as people age with each decade in life. Changes in balance and walking may signal the increased risk for injury due to falls and  may be brought to the attention of primary care physicians. Falls present a complex problem for the elderly and those who have grown infirm.  They may signal brain and circulatory anomalies that can be treated.  Many falls are linked to a drop in blood pressure, middle ear affliction, and possibly vascular changes causing sensory loss. The most notable cause of fall among an older population is medications. Changes in balance among a younger population of athletes may sometimes signal a head and neck injury and are often linked to acute or chronic substance abuse.  In contrast to those who might fall while playing, when an elderly person fall he risks head and neck injury that might leave lingering symptoms like fractures, dislocated extremities, muscle strain or tear, and even bleeding in the brain.  While working on the ambulance I have answered many calls for a person down – someone who has fallen.

There are many reasons why a sudden fall may represent something to worry about.  Not the least of which is the rare possibility that one may strike the head and cause a condition known as subdural or subarachnoid hemmorrhage. These represent a life threatening condition that is sometimes initially masked by what appears to be normal functioning.  Later a slow bleed renders them unconscious andin need of emergency neurosurgery.  Actress Natasha Richardson died from a benign fall while standing at the bottom of the bunny slope while she was learning to ski in 2009.

A sudden onset of poor balance is not always a medical emergency. Ambulation and the system of verticality is what sets us apart from primates.  Whether or not you are the type of person who likes making snow angels remember that any fall from the standing position or higher can cause a significant neuological impact. Falling backward into fresh fallen snow is not likely to bring you pain and may even result in a few moments of joy.  Highly recommended at any age.  But hard falls onto carpet or worse onto any hard surface may certainly be a true emergency. So when you are out and about and feel like you are going to fall – fall soft and leave no impression.