New NFL concussion guidelines

The NFL has recently released new stricter concussion guidelines.

The new policy states, in part: “Once removed for the duration of a practice or game, the player should not be considered for return-to-football activities until he is fully asymptotic, both at rest and after exertion, has a normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing, and has been cleared to return by both his team physician(s) and the independent neurological consultant.”

This could be a really good thing.

I hope.

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Journaling for TBI Recovery

I’ve been really thinking a lot about the two articles I read lately — the first Offensive Play – Football, dogfighting, and brain damage, by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker, and the second The Magnificent Minnesota Nun Brains by Ken Korczak.

They are both really good reads, and I also plan to read Aging with Grace by David Snowdon, which talks in greater detail about the Nun Study and what they learned about how you keep your brain and cognition intact, even in the face of considerable damage.

A bunch of things can be done — living a structured life with like-minded people, keeping a positive attitude, not fretting over material things, tending to your spiritual well-being, and (perhaps most significant to me, these days) keeping a daily journal where you mindfully and deliberately keep track of your daily life and critique yourself to improve where you can.

This matters tremendously to me, because after reading the Malcom Gladwell piece, I got to thinking about my childhood, how rough-and-tumble it was, how many times I got hit on the head in the course of playing, and how many times I was dizzy or woozy or out of it, after falling or colliding with something/someone.

Excerpted from the Gladwell piece:

But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.

This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

The bold parts are the ones that apply to me especially. Because in the course of my life I have had a ton of little hits. Too many to count, really. All those ballgames, the football, the lacrosse, the baseball, the soccer… all those times when I got clocked or had my bell rung or just plain fell and smacked my head… even the times when I didn’t smack my head, but had my head snap back as a result of a fall or a hit or a collision… It’s crazy, thinking back, and I can see how all those impacts of my childhood could easily have added up to a weakened network of connections, which made me more susceptible to more serious effects, long after I quit playing rough sports.

Perhaps my history of impacts explains why I could be in relatively minor car accidents, but be so tremendously impacted by them — unable to understand what people were saying to me, unable to initiate conversations with the police (that would have cleared my record of inaccurate info that the cops entered on the report, in order to cut the guy in the other car a break) and thus  kept my insurance costs lower — unable to function adequately in my jobs after the accidents, so that I literally had to leave and find other pastures.

Maybe that’s why one of the accidents I was in affected me so profoundly, but it didn’t affect the other person who was in the car with me. If my neural connections had  been compromised over the course of 18 years of rough play and impacts, while the other person in the car led a relatively sheltered life that was not as sports-oriented (while I was out on the field, slamming into people and things in various games, they were sitting on the sidelines, playing the flute in the band), it would make sense that the effect of double impacts — front-end and rear-end collisions — would be greater with me.

Of course, there are a ton of different variables, but if repeated exposure to head impacts plays a role, then it makes sense that I’d be more susceptible than I ever guessed I was.

Anyway, everybody’s brain is different, and I understand that self-diagnosing and trying to explain my own situation from inside my addled head can introduce problems with logic and deduction, so I could be wrong about it. I don’t think I am, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before. The main thing I’m concerned with, these days, is how to avoid the kinds of problems other people with repeated head trauma have encountered, namely, the dementia and cognitive degeneration that can develop over time. Like everyone (who is lucky enough to be alive), I am getting older, and like many folks, I’m concerned about cognitive decline.

So, my thoughts turn to the Mankato, MN nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I think about this bit of info, in particular:

Amazingly, some of the nuns maintained clear healthy minds even though their brains showed the scars and deterioration characteristic of severe brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and strokes.

In the case of the brain of one Sister Mary, who died well into her 100s, scientists were astounded to find large-scale deterioration of brain tissue, and even lesions associated with strokes and progressive Alzheimer’s Disease — yet she remained clear-headed and lucid to the end of her life.

Sister Mary’s brain apparently defeated the effects of these brain diseases by countering them with an unusually rich growth of interconnection between her brain cells, or neurons. Her extra dendrites and axons were able to bypass damaged areas of her brain to keep her lucid and healthy.

I need to do what Sister Mary did. Okay, I’m not a nun, and believe you me, there is no way I’d qualify to join them, even if I wanted to. Fundamental human differences (like anatomy and philosophy) preclude that. But if Sister Mary could manage to remain clear-headed and lucid despite large-scale deterioration of her brain tissue — including strokes and Alzheimer’s — then heck, why can’t I?

Seriously — the nuns are human, and I’m human. Perhaps Sister Mary didn’t grow up climbing and jumping and falling and fighting and tackling and being tackled, but if she was able to keep her act together despite some seriously damaging conditions, then why can’t I?

I may have led the kind of life that’s laid the groundwork for some serious cognitive degeneration as I continue to age, but by God, if there’s a way I can avoid going down the long dark tunnel to diaper-clad dementia and the total loss of everything I hold dear that makes me actually human, then I’m all in.

So, here’s my plan:

  • Stay positive (no matter what) – no matter how dismal things may seem, life has a funny way of turning around, sometime or another.
  • Introduce structure and order to my life – make sure I plan my days, and then stick with the plan (like they tell me in the Give Back Orlando material)
  • Cultivate more discipline to maintain that structure – because the stuff won’t get done by just listing it on a page
  • Do what I can to surround myself with like-minded people – friends are important, and I haven’t done enough over the years to cultivate those connections. I know this should change, and so I’ll do that.
  • Journal, journal, and journal some more – It worked for Jefferson, Edision, Faraday, Isaac Newton, and Einstein, and it can work for me.

The great thing about journaling, from where I’m sitting, is that it enables me to do all of the above items. It lets me work on my attitude, tweak my outlook, and get in touch with what is holding me back. It helps me introduce structure to my life, not only by committing to do it daily, but also by journaling in a way that is as much planning as it is reflection. I can use my journal to track my progress and develop my discipline — in ways that are appropriate to me. And it can help me work through the things that keep me from others. In my journal, I have a safe place where I can uncork at will, and no one is harmed. Too often, I have just said what I felt to people who either could not hear it, or who didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of my intensity. Using a journal lets me say what I need to say and vent, without the danger of harming others. That’s important. Especially for me. My past is littered not only with subconcussive head traumas, but also with tons of relationships that could not withstand the pressure of my outbursts and lack of control.

So, onward and upward. I have access to information about people who managed to overcome some pretty serious threats to their sanity and cognitive health. I have access to accounts of their lives and scientific investigations into what worked for them. I can avail myself of their teachings and lessons and use them to my benefit — so that I can live out my days in good health and soundness of mind. I have a plan, and I’m determined to stick with it.

All good.

What an amazing article on brain injury

Thank you Malcom Gladwell for this amazing piece – “Offensive Play

I really don’t have the words to say how much I appreciate this. As someone with friends who have both been boxers and who have played football, and who has sustained numerous concussions, myself, writing like this that reaches a mainstream audience is truly priceless.

Thank you Mr. Gladwell. From all of us.

If I had gotten help for my TBIs sooner…

I have been wondering a lot about how my life might have been different, had I gotten help for my TBIs when they happened.

If I had gotten help when I was 7 and fell down the stairs, and again when I was knocked out by a rock when I was 8… If I had been given strict orders to rest, and then watched carefully and given extra help in school and life to teach me better how to deal with classroom and social situations… not to mention being treated as an injured person, rather than a bad seed… I wonder if my grades would have been better and if my talents would have been better used.

If I had gotten help after my sports concussions in high school… again, being forced to rest, sit out of sports, take it easy, address my balance issues and get help dealing with social and attentional issues… I wonder if I would have slipped so quickly into drugs and alcohol (that numbed the pain), or if I would have been such a contrary rebel who didn’t have a good grasp on the consequences of my choices.

I wonder if my grades might have been better, if my academic career might have been better, if my ability to pursue opportunities might have been better, earlier on in life… which could have made a difference in my career path, my ability to earn, my ability to pay taxes, my ability to hold down jobs for longer than a year or so.  I wonder if I would have become so fond of risky ventures and certain kinds of danger. I wonder if I would have chosen the friends and associates I chose over the year — many of whom were bad choices, and I never realized it. Till too late. I wonder if I might have sustained some of my friendships with people over the years who meant so much to me, but whom I hurt terribly because my brain was broken and I had no clue.

I wonder if I might have been able to really contribute something of value to the world — a great book or a great discovery or a great body of research… Or just steadier, more reliable participation in my society and culture. I wonder if I might have achieved a level of participation that, given my personal commitment to make the world a better place whenever and however I can — might have helped people more than I have, thus far.

I usually get upset at tax time, when I look at how much (or little) I’ve earned and paid out, and I think about how much better I might have done for myself, had I not been so injured so often over the course of my life… so impaired… so under-achieving… so clueless about what was wrong with me. Now, I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and I don’t want to punish myself for things I had no control over. My injuries started when I was a kid, and they pretty much changed the course of my life without my understanding how or why. I know with all my heart that I have been tremendously blessed in so many, many ways. But I always feel a sense of inadequacy around this time of year. I just don’t feel like I’ve done enough with myself. I haven’t made the most of my potentials. What a waste.

On the bright side, a Washington State concussion bill would help protect young athletes, which is truly awesome! My injuries are part of my past, part of my present, and very much a part of my future. I never got adequate help after my concussions, when I was a young athlete. My chance at full recovery immediately after hard tackles, falls, and various accidents may have passed me by, but for lots of young kids, that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

And that gives me hope for our future.

A Tale of Two Concussions – What went wrong, what went right

It’s Brain Injury Awareness Month, and this year there is special focus on sports injuries, especially concussions, among young/student athletes.

This is such an important topic… and it’s had such a vital part to play in my own life. I think it’s safe to say I would not be the person I am today who experienced the difficulties I’ve had, if I hadn’t had two concussions in high school. It’s my hope that teachers and coaches and other folks who are concerned about the health and safety of kids in school-sponsored sports will read this and become a little more sensitive to the issues and hazards that can accompany sports-related head injury.

My first school-sports-related concussion came in my freshman or sophomore year. I was playing flag football at the high school, under the supervision of a regular football coach who agreed to take on intramural players on Saturdays. We were having a great time — I remember the day was bright and crisp, one of those amazing Saturday afternoons in the fall, when summer is well over and everyone is all too keenly aware that winter is just around the corner.

We had a great time playing football… such a great time, in fact, that we all started really feeling our oats, and someone said they didn’t want to use the flags anymore. They wanted to play tackle football. Like everyone else, I agreed – I was totally into it. I was feeling strong and vital and full of bravado, and I wanted to take my play beyond just dodging and diving for flags.

I wanted to tackle. I wanted to hit — and be hit. And I wanted to play free of pads and guards. I wanted to get back to basics and play football the way God intended — down and dirty and full-contact. Amen.

Well, we had a grand time. I dodged some close calls and fell flat on my face a bunch of times, trying to take other kids down. Then, in a carrying play, when I had the ball tucked under my arm and was making a break into the open midfield, I got sideswiped by another player who was bigger and stronger and a lot more solid than me.

I felt the hit land hard against my side and shoulder, and I tried to spin away from it and keep running downfield, but my feet suddenly buckled underneath me, and I went down. I don’t recall whether or not I hung onto the ball. I suspect it popped out of my arms and bounced away, but it doesn’t really matter. When I stumbled and crumpled to the ground, it was like everything ground to a slow-motion halt, and I found myself looking at grass.

The coach who was keeping an eye on us came over to me and checked me out. They asked me if I was okay and if I could walk. I said, yes, but I had a hard time picking myself up off the ground. They asked again if I was okay, and I insisted I was. I was feeling really woozy and out of it. Rattled and echo-y. Like my bell got rung and there was a long, lingering ring to it. I was embarrassed that I’d gone down so easily, and I wanted to get back to the game and redeem myself. And for a while I did. But I played badly. I was off-balance and slow and foggy — a noticeably different player than I’d been prior to the tackle.

The coach kept asking me if I was okay, and I kept saying yes, but the longer we played, the more out of it I got, and they finally called the game before we could finish it. I was so disappointed! Disappointed in myself for having been such a wuss who couldn’t take a hit. Disappointed with the coach for thinking so little of me. Disappointed in the game that I hadn’t had the chance to really shine the way I wanted to.

I’m glad the coach called the game. In retrospect, they probably should have forced me to sit out sooner. But I was so adamant about keeping on playing, there was no telling me “no” unless the game was over.

And it was.

The other concussion I had was in an intramural soccer match. It was senior year, and there weren’t going to be that many more opportunities for me to just play. College was just around the corner, and I was keenly aware that my “childhood”, such that it was, was about to disappear on me. My days of careless abandon couldn’t last, and all through my last year of high school, I devoted every spare moment to savoring the taste of youthful abandon.

That included sports. I had a strong feeling that once I was out on my own, I wouldn’t have any more time to play sports, so I wanted to really go for all the gusto I could get, however I could get it.

Well, I went for it in that soccer match. And I think I played pretty well. But at one point in the match, I was either tackled, or I tripped, and the next thing I remember, I was on my back, looking up at the sky. I was kind of out of it… not quite right… and I lay there for a little while. At first, I wasn’t sure I could move, but then I did a sort of body scan, and I could feel my whole body, so that was good. I didn’t quite feel like I could get up, though, so I lay there for a little while longer, eyes closed, collecting myself. I didn’t want to be injured. I didn’t want to be hurt. I wanted to finish the game and have a good time.

I’m not sure how long I lay there, but before too long, some of the teachers came running over to me to see if I was okay. By that time, I had collected myself and was sure I could stand and walk and play, so I bounded up and reassured everyone that I was fine. They wanted me to sit out for a little while, but I refused. I wanted to play on. If I recall correctly, one of the teachers whom I really respected managed to convince me to sit out the game and let others play in my stead.

Even though I was antsy to get back in the game, I realized that I was kind of wobbly on my feet, and I needed to take a break, so I agreed to sit out for a while. It had sunk in that my bell had gotten rung, and I wasn’t much use to my team, anyway. Plus, the weird feeling in my head made me a little nervous, so I was a little relieved to have been taken out. After a while, I was allowed back in the game, but like with the football injury, I was slower, less coordinated and not as adept at handling the ball. I really struggled, which was embarrassing.

Those two head injuries — both of them knocking me silly and altering my consciousness in the process — came at different times and under slightly different conditions. In retrospect, I wish that the coaches and teachers in charge had been more adamant about me not getting back in the game right away — or at all. But in the first case with the football game, I was so eager — hungry — to play, that wild horses couldn’t have kept me from it. I think I may have had some recollection about that football experience, when I was dealing with the soccer experience. I was much more compliant — though grudgingly — with the folks in charge. I think also the nature of the games made a difference — in the football game, it was all about drive, all about pushing onward, where in the soccer match, it was much more of a thinking-game than brute force. I suspect that made a difference in my own thinking process.

One thing that made it easier for me to sit out part of the game, after my soccer injury, was the fact that I had other team members who wanted to play. If I played the whole game, my classmates wouldn’t have gotten the chance. In the football game, there weren’t that many of us playing, and if I was out, the game came to an end — which is what happened — and I didn’t want the game called on my account. I do recall making peace with the idea of sitting out of the soccer match by agreeing to cheer my teammates from the sidelines. My teachers specifically asked me to do that, I recall, so that gave me something to do while I was recuperating from my fall.

I suspect that folks who continue to play after concussions are often such loyal and dedicated team players, that they don’t want to let their team down. Or they feel some pressure of some kind — whether from their coach or their teammates or themselves — to stay in the game. Don’t let the team down. Be a part of the group effort. Those kids often have such a spark, such a dedication, such a devotion to their team that’s really refreshing, in our me-first, winner-takes-all, I’ll-get-mine society. But that dedication can work against us in the long run, if we’re not protected by folks who know better than us — in the school sports case, coaches and trainers and teachers who supervise student athletes.

I was fortunate to have been supervised by teachers and coaches who cared very much about my well-being and safety, and who managed to prevail on me to get the hell out of a dangerous situation. I was also fortunate to have the kinds of coaches and teachers I truly respected, so when it came time for them to outrank me, I could listen to them, hear them, and follow their instructions, even though I didn’t want to.

When it comes to protecting kids from the after-effects of sports-related head injury/concussion, there’s nothing like mutual caring and respect, when it comes to making and enforcing the right decisions. And there’s nothing like keen awareness of the dangers of unmanaged concussion, to hasten the decision-making and enforcing process.

So teachers and coaches, please learn all you can about head injury and concussion. And for the sake of your students and student athletes, don’t let them play injured. I don’t care what they say or how hard they beg or how far behind you are in the game. One short-term win for the team means nothing, if it costs a player the long-term loss of their cognitive, behavioral, and physical well-being… not to mention their future.

After creating memories, will NFL stars recall them?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently ran this story:

By RACHEL BLOUNT, Star Tribune

New evidence discovered by the Sports Legacy Institute shows that the repetitive head trauma suffered by football players often results in a brain disease called CTE.

Sunday’s Super Bowl created some of the most indelible memories in the game’s recent history. Years from now, fans will be recalling Santonio Holmes’ balletic touchdown catch and James Harrison’s roaring 100-yard interception return.

Whether the players will remember is a different story. Early last week, while the Super Bowl hype machine cranked out its usual merriment, the Sports Legacy Institute held a small press conference in a quieter corner of Tampa, Fla. The group, dedicated to studying head injuries in sports, unveiled new evidence that NFL players are at risk of developing serious brain damage from the effects of repeated head trauma.

In one sense, this hardly seems like news. With ever bigger, faster players crashing into each other Sunday after Sunday, with fans clamoring for tooth-rattling hits they can replay on YouTube, semi-regulated violence remains the cornerstone of football’s allure. But as we learn more about the alarming toll the game takes on its players, the NFL has been slow to act — leaving it to guys like Chris Nowinski to ferret out the truth.

“People are not taking this seriously enough by a long shot,” said Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute. “Active players don’t want to talk about it. They have a short window of time to make money in the game, and they don’t want to think what happens to the brain when they run into a 300-pound man at 20 miles per hour. And the NFL’s research is borderline pathetic.

“Our ultimate goal would be for nobody to develop [the brain disease] CTE, to figure out how to prevent and treat it. Our initial goal is just to give people a choice. Nobody knew that multiple concussions would lead to this.”

CTE stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It used to be called dementia pugilistica, because it was primarily seen in boxers who had taken too many blows to the head.

Continue reading the article here…

I’m really happy to see people talking about this so frankly. I, myself, was one of those “jocks” in my youth who took a lot of hits and got up slowly afterwards… felt punchy and dull and foggy and “off”… but still had to get back in the game.

Now, years later, after lots of re-injury — thanks at least in part to my diminished risk-assessment skills — my life is harder going than it probably needs to be.

Everyone has problems, certainly, and I cannot use my injuries as an excuse to avoid living life to the best of my ability. But if you walk out in the rain without an umbrella, you can expect to get wet. And if the weather is cold and it’s flu season and you’re in the habit of shaking hands with sick people and then rubbing your eyes, getting sick is something you can reasonably expect to happen.

You can’t avoid every mishap on the face of the planet, but if you know that something has inherent dangers, it’s not unreasonable to seek to avoid it — or at least plan for what to do, in the event of a mishap.