Too many concussions, too little knowledge

Header image for Interrobang article CREDIT: MATTHEW KENNEDY

TORONTO (CUP) - When it comes to concussions across nearly all levels of sports, there is an alarming case of feast or famine.

There are too many athletes “getting rocked” or “seeing stars,” but not enough reporting these as possible concussions.

There is a heap of evidence pointing to how frequent and serious concussions are, and still so little is known concerning what to do about them.

As seen in the world of professional sports, the concussion conundrum is only getting more difficult to solve.

A report released on January 21 from doctors at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital found concussions to be the second-most frequent injury in the NHL. A heated lawsuit filed by former NFL players against the league worth over $750 million is currently under investigation by the United States federal court.

Yet this problem doesn't only exist in the professional world. University athletes, such as Josh Kohn, the fourth-year centre-back for the Ryerson Rams men's soccer team, have had to deal with concussions in a completely different world.

“I was excited for the season, I was excited for school, and it happened just like that,” said Kohn, a business management student at the Toronto school. “The side of my head got hit by his head, and I guess it just kind of hit a soft spot.”

Kohn suffered the concussion during a pre-season match in August contesting a 50-50 header. He stayed in the match after suffering the concussion.

“As the game goes on, I realize, trying to talk is bothering my head. It gets worse and worse, I get nauseous. I could see it coming,” Kohn said. “It's tough when my whole team is practising every single day, and I'm told I can't even come out to watch them.”

Kohn missed the first five games of the regular season, suffering symptoms from the concussion. He returned wearing protective headgear. There are protocols in place at Ryerson that aim to help students like him.

Students undergo a baseline test to ensure the brain is functioning normally. Coaches, students, athletic therapists and trainers are informed. Students then enter a graduated recovery program including light physical and mental exercises until they can enter full-contact practice and, finally, rejoin the team.

“If it was all proven in a certain way, every school would have the exact same protocol, but there's so much we still need to know,” said Jerome Camacho, Ryerson's head athletic therapist. “There are so many variables involved, but we do our best for the students' safety.”

Toronto Rehab clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Robin Green says that there's no definitive evidence that treatment improves recovery from concussions.

“There are studies down some avenues that look promising,” she said. “But right now, we don't have anything. Prevention is critical.”

Green says that for students such as Kohn, the first step would be to protect his brain from any further impact.

That doesn't mean never playing soccer again, but to always be conscious of the risks any athlete takes. Green says that there is growing evidence that every concussion increases an athlete's risk factor for another concussion, both short and long-term.

“And the more concussions you have, the more we think it eats up the reserve to compensate for natural aging,” she said. “A concussed brain could possibly see some signs of rapid aging.”

As for Kohn, he plans on producing a strong final year for the Rams men's soccer team — but he's still deciding whether or not to keep wearing his headgear.