Amid growing evidence that repeated concussions and blows to the head can have long-term, possibly fatal outcomes, local concussion experts are working to better inform people about head injuries.
Specialists at Cape Regional Medical Center’s Concussion Center are gearing up for fall sports season injuries, typically to student athletes — although adults and seniors can have such injuries all year.
More awareness about head injuries is needed.
“There’s a misconception that concussions are strictly due to sports injuries, but we have a program and treatments that serve kids and adults who get concussions just as much from falls and car accidents, too,” said A.J. Weiss, concussion center rehabilitation and treatment manager.
Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year signed a law designating the third Thursday of September as Concussion Awareness Day in New Jersey. Legislators said they hoped awareness would lead to education about the serious consequences of concussions, treatment and resources.
Of the 2.8 million traumatic brain injury-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations in 2013, most were concussions, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 300,000 children who were treated in a single year for a concussion or brain injury got hurt while playing sports or in recreation.
Scientists have explored more about concussions in recent years, especially as high rates of head injuries are found in sports such as football. Researchers have looked into how repeated head injuries and concussions could lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.
A report published in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ann McKee, chief neurologist of VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at Boston University, said 110 of 111 brains of deceased National Football League players were found to have CTE.
“Part of what we do for education is informing people about second impact syndrome, which can be fatal,” Weiss said. “It happens when someone sustains a second concussion before the first one heals, and that could lead to weeks or months of therapy, permanent damage, or worst case, death.”
Concussion symptoms include dizziness, headache, vision trouble, sometimes brief unconsciousness, fatigue, poor balance, sensitivity to light, vomiting and disorientation, among others.
Cape Regional’s center, established in January 2016, encourages people to see a physician as soon as possible if they suspect a concussion. When a physician or other medical expert refers patients to the center, Weiss said, they will see that patient in less than 48 hours.
Some patients who come in with head injuries from sports, falls or car accidents come through the emergency department, he said, where they may be prescribed a CT scan, which can detect brain bleeds or skull fractures.
Though they are necessary in many cases, experts from the New Jersey Council of Children’s Hospitals and the New Jersey Hospital Association created the Safe CT Imaging Collaborate, which works to standardize protocols for head CT scans in children to decrease radiation exposure.
“Diagnostic radiation is very, very useful when used appropriately,” said Dr. Ernest Leva, associate professor and director of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center’s Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine. “But if it’s not used appropriately, it can be dangerous.”
Dori Davidson, 19, of Dennis Township, got a concussion not from sports, but from a slip and fall in August.
She visited a Cape Regional urgent care associated with the emergency department for a laceration on her head and was referred to the concussion center, where she got baseline testing, concussion care education and a treatment plan.
Davidson worked with experts in a combination of physical therapy and occupational therapy exercise Friday to strengthen her motor and cognitive capabilities. She worked with the Dynavision D2, a computerized board that tested her motor, physical and neurological skills.
The center, which has seven certified brain injury/concussion specialists trained in physical and occupational therapy, also works with a network of nearby pediatricians to reach children who may see their primary care doctors for head injuries.
Weiss said the center also works with neurologists who attend to patients with more complicated neurological issues stemming from a concussion.
No single test can diagnose someone with a concussion, but experts hope there will be one someday. In the meantime, they said, the best they can do is educate people on how serious concussion can be, the signs and symptoms and the available resources, such as Cape Regional’s specialized center.
“We emphasize everyone to get in early if they suspect a concussion injury,” Weiss said. “The last thing we want to see is people who don’t address their symptoms immediately, they get worse and we have a worse case on our hands.”