WATERVILLE — Concussions happen.
No matter what level of what sport you play, there is the potential for head injuries to occur anytime there is the possibility for contact.
That doesn’t mean nothing is being done about it though.
The Maine Concussion Management Initiative formed five years ago with a goal of reducing concussion risks in the state’s youth, and Tuesday evening the group celebrated its fifth anniversary at Colby College’s Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center by naming world-renowned expert on traumatic brain injury, Dr. Ross Zafonte, a research scientist.
“Our goal is to help improve the health of student athletes around concussions in the state of Maine,” Medical Director for Colby College and President of the MCMI Dr. Paul Berkner said. “We’ve been doing it for five years now. We started with a small grant from the Goldfarb Center to initiate this project. We started with 23 high schools and we’ve now grown to 110 high schools across the state of Maine involved in our program.
“Our (purpose) is to promote best practices for concussion management in the high schools and in physician offices and with athletic trainers. That’s our primary goal for our project.”
According to Berkner, who founded the MCMI along with Dr. Joseph Atkins and Dr. William Heinz, the group has been working to further understand the risk factors that go into concussions.
“We created a large database of neurocognitive tests that we’re now beginning to look at to see if we can find risk factors or predictors of outcomes over our population,” Berkner said. “Some of the things we already know are students with attention deficit disorder, history of migraine headaches, mood disorders have a higher risk for prolonged outcomes from concussions.
“There is a lot of unknown, and that’s what we’re finding out is we really don’t know a lot. That’s part of our goal here to try and garner more information and do some good research around predictors and outcomes.”
As it is in any scientific endeavor, the more information available, the better the research. That is where Tuesday’s featured speaker, Dr. Ross Zafonte, comes into play.
Zafonte is the Earle P. and Ida S. Charlton Chariman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, vice president of Medical Affairs at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Massachusetts General Hospital. Zafonte’s research with regards to the MCMI has focused itself on the fact and fiction concerning what is known about concussions.
“One of the things we’re doing very importantly is how baseline factors affect people after concussion,” Zafonte said. “How do they affect the recovery process? How do they affect how we might treat you? How do they affect the long-term sequelli, in other words, trying to make our process more specific, more person specific in understanding all the variables that go into you as a particular individual.
“Everything from your gender to your education to did you have a learning disability or ADHD or do you have a family history of migraines. Those are all critical and important things for us to know about. So we’re trying to identify those parameters and then later on we’ll talk on some cross collaboration from everything to clinical interventions to some of work later here in imaging that we’ve been able to identify some things.”
As far as preventing concussions amongst youths go, the best methods according to Zafonte don’t rely on equipment. He debuked the theory that mouth guards can help reduce concussions, and was also skeptical about recent perceived advancements in helmets for sports like football. He did say that the equipment could help some day, but there are more effective ways of minimizing concussion risks.
Teaching kids how to play games such as football the correct way — at an age that is still to be determined — can help limit concussions.
“What is important to understand is proper technique, proper training, avoiding excess hitting,” Zafonte says. “Frankly, the National Football League has done that and limited the number of hitting episodes. Understanding for kids who are probably more vulnerable by a number of different ways — and I don’t know how much more vulnerable, but we all believe more vulnerable — when is it a proper time to learn hitting?
“I love team sports. I think they contribute disproportionately. We learn a lot from them, we learn how to work with others, we learn how to achieve goals, we learn a level of fitness. My own son plays hockey, but I think we have to teach it right, understand when people do have clinical symptoms and very much understand when it may be a little bit too early in young people, and that part is still a point of debate.”
There is still plenty that is unknown about the brain and the injuries that affect it, but that is certainly not lost on people like Zafonte and the MCMI.
“There are a lot of fundamental questions to answer,” Zafonte said in closing Tuesday. “A lot.”