Rubin: Keeping a cool head about concussions

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

He’s been a doctor long enough to know that life will throw you curveballs — and some of them will hit you in the head.

That’s when Jeffrey Kutcher steps in. A former UM neurologist, he wrote the book on concussions, or at least co-wrote it. And as he helped explain to an audience of concerned parents in Birmingham last week, there’s no need to panic.

OK, there’s some need, sometimes. With concussions, there are endless variables. But in general, we’re far more scared than we should be.

That was the thrust of a community forum called “Play Smart, Play Safe” at the school district headquarters.

We are blessedly more enlightened about concussions and their potential repercussions than we were when we all joked about getting our bell rung and staggered back into the game. The downside, Kutcher said, is that “with awareness comes misinformation.”

Several high-profile suicides, for instance, have left the impression that pro football careers lead to self-destruction. But until recently, former players had a lower suicide rate than the general population.

And: There’s no numerical limit to how many concussions a person can tolerate. The key factors are severity and recovery time.

And: not every concussion requires a mad rush to the emergency room. In fact, said panelist and sports medicine physician Peter Biglin, “there’s no reason to go to the emergency room a vast majority of the time.”

And so on.

“I really would like to abolish the fear of all of this,” said Kelly Salter, the athletic trainer at Birmingham Groves High and the organizer of the event.

Then again, as the mother of two teenaged boys who play football and other sports, “I get it.”

What concussions are, and aren’t

One of the 30 parents in the room was visibly pregnant. Most of the others were visibly worried, or at least disquieted.

Caesar Ruiz, 56, was taking notes. He has a freshman daughter who plays soccer and swims, “and she sometimes has migraines.” Are they really concussions?

Not likely. Concussions almost always reveal themselves within 24 hours.

“I know the science gets better,” Ruiz said, “but when something happens in the brain, you don’t know.”

That’s why Kutcher and MSU faculty member Joanne Gerstner, a former Detroit News sportswriter, wrote their book — and why they gave it a reassuring title.

Back in the Game: Why Concussion Doesn’t Have to End Your Athletic Career” (Oxford University Press) is aimed, among other things, at parents who are panicking over concussions that haven’t happened yet, probably won’t, and likely wouldn’t have long-term consequences if they did.

High on the list of Kutcher’s pet peeves is the use of “concussion” as the catch-all term for headaches, blurred vision, memory loss and all the other things that can actually be part of post-concussion syndrome, which is “essentially a software injury to the brain.”

Also, noted the rec league hockey defenseman and founder of the Sports Neurology Clinic, not every blow to the head causes a concussion, and not every concussion is caused by a blow to the head. Just one example: a whiplash-inducing knee-high tackle can jar the brain enough to cause problems.

That falls into the “worry” category. Sorry.

Beware over-pampering

A few more tips from the pros:

It’s not that one concussion makes others more likely, it’s that any further concussions are more likely to be diagnosed. Sometimes they’re the same concussion.

Over-pampering a post-concussion patient can create the anxiety, lethargy and poor sleep parents are trying to avoid. Active teens get twitchy when they’re idle, and checking the phone once an hour won’t hurt as much as feeling disconnected.

While you’re teaching your kids not to tackle with their helmets, teach them to be honest about how they’re feeling. Kids aren’t the best long-term thinkers when it comes to what’s best for them, but they can be their own best advocates.

As tempting as it might be sometimes, “We can’t bubble-wrap our kids,” Salter said.

So be aware and be involved, but remember — a little knowledge about a dangerous thing can be a dangerous thing.