Christopher Roth doesn’t remember the train wreck on the practice field: As a University of Michigan fullback, he and another player were running at each other from about 10 yards apart. The resulting collision left him stumbling around, unaware of what he was doing.
Like three million athletes every year, Roth had suffered a concussion. It wasn’t the first time, but this injury ended his football career.
“It wasn’t until someone physically grabbed my helmet and took it away that I stopped. I tried to hide my injuries,” said Roth, who earned his M.D. at UM and now is a neuroradiologist at Duke University. “Had the physicians at UM not stopped me, I would have kept going and I would not be where I am today.”
As football season begins for high school and college competitors, those hits to the head are happening daily on practice fields. At the University of Michigan, researchers and physicians are taking a new approach to diagnosing, preventing and researching concussion at a new clinic dedicated to a neurological strategy: the Michigan NeuroSport Concussion Program.
Just how concussion affects the brain has been a hot topic in recent months as the National Football League and National Collegiate Athletic Association have established committees to study how to best protect their athletes.
“There has been considerable attention paid to concussion recently, by the media and others, spurred by reports of National Football League players, hockey players — people who have had a long history of contact — having a very particular kind of dementing illness,” says Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., assistant professor of neurology and the leader of the new program. “But that story is not completely told yet. We need to do more research to figure out what it is about the hits that leads to this problem. UM’s great tradition in athletics, as well as its reputation in medicine, make it an ideal place to found a sports concussion center that can guide national thought and practice prevention and treatment of sports concussions.”
The new Michigan NeuroSport Concussion Program already has received financial support from Shelley Barr, widow of former Detroit Lion Terry Barr. Terry Barr, who also played football at UM, died at age 73 after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. His wife hopes she can help impact the athletes of today by supporting new research and educational outreach.
Kutcher also is director of Michigan NeuroSport, where he works with and treats athletes from a variety of sports including soccer, ice hockey and wrestling at all levels. He is the team neurologist for the UM and Eastern Michigan University athletic programs. He also has been instrumental in crafting the concussion policies of the NCAA, Big Ten and Mid-American Conference.
Kutcher says that work continues on finding better diagnostic techniques that might make it easier to see the actual brain changes caused by sports concussions. Concussions are being treated more seriously, as evidence is mounting that repeated impacts to the brain typical in sports injuries can have lasting impacts.
More study is needed on why some athletes are more prone to concussions, and others more resilient. Kutcher says he hopes the new program can be a leader in that research, as well as a resource for coaches, athletes and parents looking for guidance in preventing and recognizing concussion.
A new Web site has been launched, where educational modules and other basic information will be offered. Kutcher and Michigan Athletics are sponsoring a Sports Concussion Conference Sept. 12 for coaches, parents, athletes and others at Detroit Country Day school in Beverly Hills. Registration at the site or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Kutcher already is promoting these efforts among his neurology colleagues: He was influential in getting the American Academy of Neurology to establish a division of sports neurology, which he now chairs.
“We’re not taught about taking care of athletes in neurology training,” says Kutcher. “Caring for athletes requires a different kind of approach.”
Roth, who played on Michigan’s 1997 national championship football team, says doctors, coaches and parents have to realize that treating concussions in athletes is very different because most just want to get back in the game and may not be honest about their symptoms.
“I believe I had multiple concussions when I was playing. I didn’t tell anyone. I avoided physicians because I knew they might make trouble for me by pulling me out of the game,” said Roth, who had to hang up his helmet before his senior year season with the Wolverines. “But now, as a neuroradiologist, I know this is an incredibly important concern that needs more study and more awareness. We need to protect these athletes.”
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