Concussions: Hurting your brain for the game

TRU researcher explains his findings; a former player shares his experiences

There is no “magic solution” for concussions, according to Jeff Dunn, who presented his research to the TRU community on Oct. 30.

“It seems like the number of concussions are on the rise, possibly with the increased interest in adolescent sport and high-performance sports,” Dunn said. “The long-term symptoms of concussions are worse if you’re younger… adolescents have a longer recovery time for concussions than adults.”

According to Dunn, most people will recover 100 per cent after a mild concussion, but symptoms like dizziness, headaches, poor co-ordination and light sensitivity can last from weeks to years.

TRU researcher Jeff Dunn uses a glass skull to explain brain injury caused by a concussion. (Tayla Scott/The Omega)

TRU researcher Jeff Dunn uses a glass skull to explain brain injury caused by a concussion. (Tayla Scott/The Omega)

Dunn, who is a Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Imaging and a professor in clinical neuroscience, described a concussion as a brain injury that occurs when the brain is shaken. He explained that helmets don’t protect against concussion, they only protect the skull.

Dunn said the best thing to do after suffering a concussion is to rest immediately. If there is a noticeable increase in pain, dizziness or experiences vomiting in the hours after a concussion, he or she should be taken to the hospital. Otherwise, the best thing is cognitive and physical rest. This means avoiding physical activity and avoiding light from cell phones and television.

Concussions at TRU, SFU and UBC:

Among TRU’s 190 athletes, there has already been six concussions since September, according to TRU’s athletic therapist Kevin Brechin. This already surpasses the four concussions in total from last year. The concussions from both years occurred in soccer, basketball and volleyball.

Simon Fraser University (SFU), which has about 350 athletes, has had 19 concussed athletes since August. The concussions have been across a wide range of sports including swimming, wrestling, football, volleyball and softball.

Laurie Freebairn, SFU’s head physiotherapist, explained that athletes at SFU undergo baseline concussion testing before they are allowed to begin practising their sport. This involves cognitive, co-ordination and balance tests.

“Otherwise when somebody has a concussion you don’t know what is normal for them,” Freebairn said.

“When an athlete sustains a concussion, we monitor him or her daily doing SCAT (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool) symptom checks. The athletes are also monitored by our team physician, who ultimately gives the clearance to the athlete for full participation in their sport,” she said.

UBC has approximately 650 athletes, with five concussed athletes since September, according to head therapist Scott Fraser. Although he wouldn’t release the exact statistics, he estimated that UBC has between six and 12 athletic concussions each year.

Five concussions later:

Brennan Wright, 23, has been playing hockey practically his entire life. At 15 he suffered his first concussion.

“I was cutting around the back of the net going for the puck and the opposing forward came in, jumped and elbowed me in the head,” Wright said. “It gave me a black out for about a minute. I didn’t know where I was. I had no idea what province I was in. I was completely oblivious to what happened.”

Former WolfPack player Brennan Wright has had five concussions in the past seven years. (Tayla Scott/The Omega)

Former WolfPack player Brennan Wright has had five concussions in the past seven years. (Tayla Scott/The Omega)

Over the next seven years, Wright experienced four more concussions while playing hockey. Each concussion was either from being elbowed or shouldered in the head in blindside hits, even though hits to the head are not allowed in the leagues Wright played in.

“My subsequent concussions were all like, the ringing in the ears, star struck, can’t see anything. I’d have a real hard time, dizziness and a lot of vertigo when I initially got these concussions,” he said.

In 2012, Wright’s first year at TRU, he received his fifth concussion while playing an exhibition game with the WolfPack hockey team. Afterwards, he visited a head trauma specialist.

The specialist told him that he was probably going to get another concussion, and that when he does, he’ll likely end up getting some mental disabilities or brain damage.

Wright took the advice the specialist and decided to quit playing hockey.

“Immediately after the [fifth] concussion, I was told to sit in a dark room for about a month. I wasn’t allowed to look at my phone, TV, anything like that because the light would be too sensitive for my eyes,” he said. “I had post-concussion syndrome for about a year. Basically, it’s the lasting effects of what a concussion is. I had trouble focusing and I had migraines.”

After each concussion, Wright would experience these symptoms for six months to a year. He also felt depressed and would sometimes experience mood swings.

“The mood swings are definitely a symptom of a concussion and I know that. I can sense when there’s a mood swing due to a concussion, because it’s really irrational,” he said.

According to Dunn, the tendency to get depression after a concussion is really high since the person concussed has to avoid friends and exercise in order to recover. He explained that it is common for a concussed person to be uncharacteristically angry and irritable.

“Concussions can change your behaviour. Every person can have a different series of symptoms. I think the changes in behaviour and depression, they’re the ones that change people’s family lives a lot,” he said.

According to Dunn, an MRI will show no difference in the brain after a concussion and getting one would be a “waste of time.” But that might change with new MRI technology.

“The new part for concussion and brain injury is called diffusion tensor imaging,” Dunn said. “There’s active research into diffusion tensor imaging, which will actually show brain injury due to concussion.”

Unfortunately, there are only a few machines in Canada capable of diffusion tensor imaging, but Dunn believes it will become more popular in concussion research and treatment in the years to come.

Until then, reducing concussions is up to the athletes and the leagues they play in.

“Right now we’re looking at managing concussions and managing rules,” Dunn said. “There is a reduced incidence of concussion in younger hockey players when they don’t have checking in the league. So there could be rule changes to help with certain sports.”

According to former WolfPack hockey coach Don Schulz, the current rules in place, like no checking from behind, no hits to the head and no jumping to hit another player, have already increased player safety.

“Body checking is a part of hockey. It would be like taking tackling out of football,” Schulz said.

Dunn believes that continuing research on concussions is important to understand why certain people recover faster than others, and the best way to keep athletes safer from concussions is to keep people educated about the causes of concussions and the recovery needed afterwards.