Concussions are mysterious to many of us but medical science is getting better at understanding how to test, treat, and aid recovery from them. Here are three recent breakthroughs you should know about – two of them from right here in Canada.

New blood test for concussions

A Canadian team of researchers have made a major discovery in how to identify and diagnose patients with a concussion. The answer may be in your blood. The team has found a blood test that they claim has a 90 per cent rate of accuracy.

Currently, concussions are diagnosed by medical imaging technology or a complex list of observations and physical tests. A blood test, though, would simplify the process and enable medical professionals to diagnose and treat concussions faster.

The blood test measures metabolite levels in the blood. These leave chemical fingerprints that can tell what’s happening in the brain. While it’s not the first time researchers have looked to blood tests to try and diagnose concussions, this is one of the most promising findings for early detection.

Blood protein a measure of severity

If you’ve ever had a concussion, you know it can be both a painful and confusing experience with a long and unpredictable recovery ahead. Researchers in New York State have discovered that, once again, our blood can help determine the severity of the concussion with a view to predicting recovery time.

In a study of concussed athletes, they discovered that a higher level of the brain protein tau in the blood can lead to a longer recovery period. Tau is a protein found in the human body and is linked to brain cell damage. Higher levels in the blood indicate a more severe injury.

In the test group, the athletes with high levels took longer than 10 days to return to play while those with less got back sooner. While more research is needed, the results have researchers hopeful that measuring tau proteins in the blood can help with diagnosing the severity of a concussion and predicting a patient’s recovery time.

Light exercise can help recovery in kids

Another Canadian team has found light exercise may help some concussed kids recover faster. Resting and slowing down have been common treatments for concussions, but researchers in Ottawa have found that light physical activity can help mend some young brains.

Looking at over 3000 youngsters ages 5 to 18 who were treated for concussions, the team found that those who did some light physical activity in the first week after their injury saw faster improvements than those who did not. For those restricted to bed rest, nearly half (44%) continued to show symptoms a month later, while a quarter of those who were out doing light walks, swimming, or stationary cycling reported fewer lingering symptoms in the same time frame.

Certainly, if a child has suffered a concussion as a result of a sporting activity, he or she should be pulled from play, but it is promising to see the positive impact of light exercise on their recovery.

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Five years ago, a young hockey player at the top of his game sustained a couple of heavy blows to his head. The resulting concussion was devastating – sidelining his career and putting his health in serious jeopardy. With June being Brain Injury Awareness Month across Canada, we immediately think of this man’s accomplishments and struggles with brain injury.

This week, that young man is making a triumphant return to the arena where he has long made his mark. You may have heard of him. His name is Sidney Crosby. And this week he is making his third appearance in a Stanley Cup Final – the first since sustaining a serious concussion in January of 2011.

Of course, Vancouverites will know Sid the Kid by his Golden Goal. The whole city – indeed the whole of Canada – cheered ecstatically when he brought down the curtain on the 2010 Olympics with that breathtaking goal in overtime against the American squad.

Sadly, a year later, Number 87’s spectacular career was thrown into a tailspin following his concussion. His recovery lasted years. So as he laced up this week for his latest appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, we remember the long road he took to get here.

Of course, you don’t have to be an Olympic or Stanley Cup champion to know or suffer the impact of a brain injury. That’s what Brain Injury Awareness Month is all about.

According to the Brain Injury Association of Canada, 160,000 Canadians sustain a brain injury each year and over a million live with the effects of an acquired brain injury. The statistics also show that half of those injuries result from falls and motor vehicle accidents.

The good news is that many brain injuries are preventable, especially in sports. The first tip is to always wear a helmet when biking, playing contact sports, or engaging in activities like rollerblading, skiing, or snowboarding where falls are common. Helmets do not always prevent concussions, but properly designed and fitted helmets are your best first line of defense.

Of course, not everything in life can be prevented. Car crashes, falls, and other events can’t be anticipated. Fortunately, the majority of brain injuries are treatable if diagnosed early enough. If you’ve been in an accident or fall and think you’ve sustained a brain injury, go get treatment!

A brain injury is always something to take seriously. Without proper attention, diagnosis, and treatment, the situation can easily worsen with further problems developing down the road. The impact of a brain injury can take only seconds to happen but it can last a lifetime.

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Are we endangering our children’s brain health by allowing them to play high-impact contact sports? Researchers are finding that repetitive blows to the head in high-impact contact sports place athletes at risk of permanent brain damage.

While football players are prone to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repetitive blows to the head. Mayo Clinic scientists recently discovered an increase in brain damage in men who played contact sports as children (Science Daily).

The Mayo study links school contact sports – football, boxing, wrestling, rugby, basketball, and baseball – with the development of CTE. The symptoms of CTE include confusion, memory loss, depression, impaired judgment, aggression and progressive dementia. These symptoms can begin years or even decades after brain trauma.

Football players who lose consciousness after concussions are more likely to suffer from memory loss later in life according to a recent study conducted by retired NFL players.

“Our results do suggest that players with a history of concussion with a loss of consciousness may be at a greater risk for cognitive problems later in life,” says Munro Cullum, chief of neuropsychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. According to a recent CBC article, “We are at the early stages of understanding who is actually at risk at the individual level.”

The study compared brain scans of 27 people who didn’t play college or pro football to 28 former NFL athletes. Participants ranged in age from 41 to 77 and were similar in age, education and mental capacity.

Researchers concluded football players were far more likely to suffer brain damage and cognitive impairment years after retirement. Players who had a concussion history paired with mild cognitive impairments got the lowest scores.

The impact of missed childhood sports concussions can be devastating. Parents familiar with concussion symptoms help their child play sports in the safest way possible.

“It’s critical to be aware of the prevention and treatment of concussions, which are brain injuries that occur when the head is struck or suddenly jarred,” according to a recent Chicago Tribune article.

Tips to Avoid Childhood Concussions

  1. Form strong relationships with coaches. Parents should confirm coaches and trainers are keenly aware of concussion symptoms and treatment. Coaches should also know the guidelines for children returning to sports after suffering a head injury.
  1. Children should wear protective gear relevant to their sport. Optimal safety gear is the correct size and fits well. Parents should ensure their child’s protective gear is approved by the organization that governs their sport. For example, the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) approves face masks and helmets.
  1. Ask coaches if they perform pre-season tests to establish baseline neurological data. The pre-season information helps determine how severe concussions are.

Do you know how to treat head injuries? Would you know what to do if someone slipped and hit their head in front of you? The statistics will surprise you.

People Don’t Know How to Treat Head Injuries

  1. 59% of people don’t think they could save a life in an emergency situation.
  2. 25% of people said they would stand by and watch when a life is on the line.
  3. 28% of people would attempt first aid. Sadly, most would make mistakes and make the situation worse.

Head Injury Symptoms

Severe head injury symptoms include low responsive level, loss of consciousness, leakage of blood or watery fluid from the ear or nose and unequal pupil size.

What to Do if You Witness a Head Injury

A Virginia Tech study concludes that at least 28% of all hockey helmets are unsafe to wear based on their ability to prevent concussions. These tests include helmets worn by both the NHL and youth leagues.

Hockey helmets were awarded one to five stars based on a grading system that took three years and $500,000 to develop. No funding was received from the helmet industry.

32 helmets were tested.

Hockey players wearing the “not recommended” helmets risk incurring at least six concussions per season, and in some cases more than eight, according to Virginia Tech.

Ann McKee is the woman at the forefront of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research.  She is a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of Boston University’s CTE Center.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who have endured repetitive head trauma. Because of the NFL concussion lawsuit, CTE is most often associated with football players, but the disease also affects soccer, hockey, rugby and baseball players.

McKee’s research on CTE is funded by several organizations including the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the National Football League.

McKee recently discussed her work on CTE in an interview with Boston University. “I looked at the slide and it was like ‘Oh my God! This is so amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this’” she recalls on the first time she saw CTE. In McKee’s examination of professional boxer Peter Pender’s brain in 2003, she discovered tangles of protein clustered around blood vessels called tau, the first indicator of CTE.

McKee also discusses the 240 brains in the CTE Center’s bank, brain injury in kids’ sports, and what shocks her most about CTE. Read the full interview on BU’s Research.

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Joseph Chernach, committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 25 as a result of depression caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  He played organized tackle football in a Wisconsin-Michigan Pop Warner football league from 1997 to 2000.

Debra Pyka, Joseph’s mother, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pop Warner, the largest youth football organization in the United States. She claims that Pop Warner was negligent in protecting her son from the dangers of head trauma.  Pyka’s lawsuit came just eight days after researchers released a study that found NFL retirees who began playing tackle football before they turned 12 were at increased risk of developing cognitive problems.

“Other parents out there should know what happened to my son and be aware of all the dangers and symptoms,” Debra Pyka told NBC News. “I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else’s child.”

Before his death, Chernach was suffering from the disease Dementia Pugilistica, which is associated with CTE. He was also suffering from Concussion Syndrome which included symptoms such as memory loss, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and dementia.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Pyka’s lawyer Gordon Johnson, said “children should not be exposed to the dangers of youth football, but if parents do choose to allow their children to play the game, there should be greater care taken to protect the most vulnerable amongst us.”

The Chernach family is seeking $5 million in damages.

Complaint Chernach v. Pop Warner and Lexington Insurance

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Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center have developed new and non-invasive eye tracking technology to quickly determine the severity of head impact.

NYU’s study evaluated 169 patients. 157 patients were neurologically normal and 12 had specific  nerve weaknesses in the eyes or brain swelling. An eye tracking device measured the ratio of horizontal to vertical eye movements as participants watched a 220 second music video.The neurologically normal participants displayed 1:1 ratios while those with nerve damage or swelling in the brain demonstrated abnormal eye movement ratios reflecting the affected nerve. In each patient with abnormal eye movement, surgery was able to repair the brain which corrected the eye movements to a normal range.

According to the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, 50,000 Canadians sustain brain injuries each year with 30% of all traumatic brain injuries sustained by youth, many while participating in sports and recreational activities.

“One of the reasons that clinical trials for treatment of brain injury have failed in the past is that brain injury is hard to classify and quantitate with existing technologies,” said Uzma Samadani, MD, PhD in an NYU press release,” This invention suggests a potential new method for classifying and quantitating the extent of injury. Once validated, it will both accelerate diagnosis and aid in the development of better treatments,”

Although the study monitored patients with clinical deficits, the technology will likely be used for traumatic brain injuries and concussions.  Because the test doesn’t take long to administer, medical staff can examine hundreds of patients in a short amount of time.

“When a person falls and hits their head, it can be difficult to determine whether the injury is life-threatening,” explained Samadani. “Eye tracking is potentially a simple, non-invasive and cost-effective way to determine quickly which patients need immediate attention.”

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