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October 21, 2014

Tackling Concussions

Awareness, Better Diagnosis and Management are Key

Cade Harris was hit so hard last season that he blacked out for a few seconds. After gathering himself, he walked to the opposing team’s huddle. “The next day, I had a terrible headache,” he says. “It was a little scary.” Doctors confirmed that Cade, a senior at Patrick Henry High School in Hanover, Va., had suffered a concussion, his second in three years.

“There have been thousands of concussions in every war we’ve fought and scores in every football season that’s been played. But for so long there was no awareness. That’s all changing,” says David X. Cifu, M.D., chairman and the Herman J. Flax, M.D. professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Did you know?• The Centers for Disease Control reports that about 3 million concussions occur each year in the United States.
• Symptoms include headache, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, fatigue and difficulty remembering new information.
• Long-term effects can include dementia and other mental issues.

Cifu is the principal investigator of a $62.2 million federal grant to oversee a national consortium of universities, hospitals and clinics studying what happens to active duty service members and veterans who suffer traumatic brain injuries. And he is working closely with the NFL, NHL, NCAA and high schools to develop better diagnosis and management of concussions. Gone are the days when a coach asks a dazed player how many fingers he is holding up or what day of the week it is.

“Ninety-five percent of all brain injuries are mild concussions – more than half of all people never see a doctor and probably don’t tell their coach or parents,” he says. “But it can take six months or longer for the brain to return to its normal function. We need to test the brain’s ability to perform multiple functions at once before we let an athlete get hit again, give a soldier a gun or let someone drive a car.”

He hopes to release specific findings and guidelines in the next few months. Already, he has helped develop a Concussion Coach app that supports self-management of symptoms for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Concussions are the oldest injury out there, dating back to when cavemen hit each other over the head with animal bones,” he says. “But we are still improving how we diagnose, assess and manage them. We are making great strides to bring about better health for everyone.”

The Concussion Coach App

The Concussion Coach app is a self-help tool for anyone with persistent symptoms after a concussion. The free app is available for iPads and iPods, and it will be available for the Android platform later this year.

This article by Janet Showalter first appeared in the fall issue of 12th & Marshall.

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Updated: 04/29/2016