A while back, we wrote a blog about pitchside management (here) and I was very careful not to discuss concussion at the time as its potentially a topic that warrants a couple of blogs on it own (blog #2 will discuss post concussion management).
Since writing that blog, there have been a number of high-profile head injuries in the football World Cup and more recently in the IRB 6 Nations. It’s very easy to assess such scenarios from the armchair with the benefits of replays – but what these examples did do was spark positive discussions about a topic that unfortunately is glossed over within sport (not necessarily sports medicine – a few tweeters in particular that discuss the topic a bit: @PhysioRichmond, @Sophie_T_SEM, @SportsDocSkye , @KLM390).
What is concussion?
The RFU describes concussion as:
“a functional disturbance of the brain without any associated structural pathology (as visible using current scanning technology) that results from forces transmitted to the brain (either directly or indirectly). It is generally considered part of the spectrum of traumatic brain injury (TBI)“
One issue we have as clinicians is a poorly defined summary of what concussion is – where does an acute bang to the head that causes some dizziness become “concussion”? The first thing to clarify is that not all head injuries are concussions, and not all concussions result from head injuries (explained later). In fact, terming concussion a “traumatic brain injury” (TBI) may be more accurate – I am certainly not a fan of the word “mild” when discussing brain injuries.
We also have no gold standard for assessing concussion. In the updated version of the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool version 3 (SCAT3), the authors describe (here) clinical diagnosis as a combination of symptoms, physical signs and impaired cognitive function. To diagnose a concussion, some of the following symptoms should be present (via the CDC):
|Difficulty thinking clearly||HeadacheFuzzy or blurry vision||Irritability||Sleeping more than usual|
|Feeling slowed down||Nausea or vomiting
|Sadness||Sleep less than usual|
|Difficulty concentrating||Sensitivity to noise or lightBalance problems||More emotional||Trouble falling asleep|
|Difficulty remembering new information||Feeling tired, having no energy||Nervousness or anxiety|
Perhaps one reason concussion isn’t taken as seriously as it should is the lack of external signs. In some cases, it is a hidden injury. Classed as a TBI, there is undoubtably going to be swelling associated with a concussion. A swollen knee or ankle looks pretty drastic to players and coaches, its easy to point at and compare to the other limb and easy to explain why you are removing someone from the field of play. But here we are talking about something contained within the skull. There are also elements of a concussion that we won’t see in the 2 minutes we have on the pitch – such as disrupted sleep, anxiety, drastic mood swings (continued management discussed in forthcoming blog). So now we start to see some of the difficulties with assessing a head injury at pitchside..
Saying the C-Word
So, following a clash of heads on the pitch, we rush on to survey the scene. As well as the adrenaline associated with getting on the pitch and thinking quickly about what to do & say, you probably have a referee, a handful of players, spectators and the coaching staff all asking whats going on. Lets assume there is no associated neck injury (essential to check following any head injury!!), no abrasions or lacerations – just this hidden injury within the skull. How many of those symptoms listed above should be present before you diagnose a concussion? And if they aren’t present now, how might continued swelling affect them in 1 minute, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Some signs and symptoms may not evolve for hours (McCrory et al). The two voices in your head are saying:
“If this players gets better in a minute and I take them off, the players and coaches are going to crucify me – they’ll probably never tell me the truth about their injuries again because they think I’ll sub them every time.. Should I let them carry on for a bit?”
“Actually, I Couldnt care less what they think, even if they are star player and we lose, we are talking about this persons brain!”
I believe things are about to change, if they havent already, but previously just saying the word concussion in rugby ruled a player out for a minimum of 3 weeks. Two concussions in one season for the same player would rule them out for the remainder of the season. Designed to safeguard the player and the medical team, this does add a bit more pressure to on-pitch assessments.
Making the Call
There are huge benefits to being pitchside to witness injuries, especially when the injury may result in the loss of memory of said injury. Observing the mechanism of injury can give you great indicator as to potential problems. But remember, not all concussions are caused by impact injuries to the head. McCrory et al (here) define concussion as:
“An injury caused by a direct blow to the head, face, neck, or somewhere else on the body with an impulsive force transmitted to the head, resulting in a graded set of clinical symptoms”
The population you work with is going to be key here. Reduced neck musculature and head control could make younger athletes, or slighter built adult athletes, more susceptible to non-head impact concussions.
It is personal opinion, but I would say some symptoms are more severe than others. For example, ANY loss of consciousness, even seconds and the player should come straight off. We are talking about an event that is significant enough to stop the brain working. Poor terminology, but imagine the fear and anxiety if you told an athlete their back didn’t work – I’m pretty sure they would be asking for your help then (**semantic police disclaimer – I don’t recommend ever telling someone “something doesn’t work”**).
Secondly, vomiting is a pretty clear indicator of a concussion. Although the mechanisms aren’t quite clear, it’s believed to be a combination of individual intrinsic factors (Brown et al 2000), which means the absence of vomiting unfortunately doesn’t rule a concussion out, but the presence of it definitely makes the diagnosis more likely.
Finally, the third thing I would always look for, or listen for, is what they are saying and how they are saying it. If it is incoherent or in any way bizarre (depends on your athlete, you have a pre-existing level of weird that you may want to work from) then that’s a pretty good sign of a brain injury. Most people are familiar with asking your short-term memory questions with a head injury, but equally important to what they aren’t saying, is what they are saying – self-control, judgement & decision-making occurs in the frontal lobe and is one of the first skills to diminish following a brain injury. With a limb injury you may be inclined to listen to their judgement and monitor performance & function briefly, but head injuries are one example where the athlete shouldn’t be involved in the immediate decision-making process. As mentioned above, this may be an invisible injury and it may be tricky to demonstrate to a concussed athlete that they are concussed.
I think this is pretty straight forward. There is no game or event that is bigger than a persons life. Admittedly, I have never worked at a World Cup or a 6 Nations event but the level of sport you work in shouldnt matter either. This is an injury that could have serious implications on quality of life, regardless of the quality of sport. If there is any doubt in your mind about a potential concussion, they need to come off.
Look back at the RFU description of concussion – “a functional disturbance of the brain…” We are talking about THE BRAIN. It controls EVERYTHING. How a person feels, thinks, moves, sees… Do I need to go on? There is some seriously concerning data coming out from America about long-term effects of repeated concussion in the NFL with regards to depression, substance abuse and even suicide. Just this year, NFL line backer Chris Brland, aged 24, retired from the game due to fear of the effects from repeated concussions (here).
There are numerous pressures on therapists pitchside to make quick calls regarding injuries. It is pleasing to see some discussions in rugby and football about providing more time for head injury assessment, similar to a blood sub, but I would say that if there is enough doubt to request this extra time to monitor, is that sufficient doubt to suspect a traumatic brain injury?
There is a whole other blog (or three) to discuss different assessment tools and post-concussion management – how it differs between adults and younger athletes, so bear with us – we’re already working on that.
Yours in sport,