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Concussion Awareness Grows

While a “crosstown rivalry” gridiron clash between Bradley Central and Cleveland stole the spotlight two Fridays ago, a very important day passed.

The 20th annual National Concussion Awareness Day was on Sept. 15.

Mild traumatic brain injuries are something local orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gary Voytik has to deal with on a weekly basis in the fall, as there are more concussions reported in September and October than any two months of the year.

Here is an interview with Dr. Voytik, who is a credentialed ImPACT concussion physician, discussing one of the biggest topics in sports at all levels of play.

Q: What are the most common signs of a concussion in sports?

Dr. Voytik: The number one symptom with a concussion is a headache. With the ImPACT concussion program there are 22 symptoms that are reported in a testing. Some of them are real subtle. You may have a youth football player that just has fatigue and irritability. No headache, dizziness or fogginess. So it’s important that parents are involved with this process to make sure to let the coach know when their son or daughter isn’t acting appropriately. One of the paramount questions I always speak with my athletes about that have a suspected concussion is their sleep pattern. Concussions very often can change sleep patterns, so noticing a change like that is very important as well.

Q: What are some ways coaches and others can protect players from competing with a concussion?

Dr. Voytik: I think it is critically important coaches emphasize to their team that when one of your teammates is not acting appropriately you should let someone know. Let the referee know or yell over to your coach. Studies have shown if you recognize that concussion and pull them out, you will in many cases decrease the length of the healing time for the concussion by two weeks. If an athlete stays in the game with a concussion and takes another impact it could possibly make the concussion one that takes 3-6 weeks to recover from. Teammates are a part of this awareness.

Q: When do you pull a player off the field/court to check whether they have a concussion or not?

Dr. Voytik: Any time there is a significant head-to-head contact on the football field, basketball court, soccer field or any field of play it is best to pull them out of the game. Even if it is just for a play or two. Then a coach can ask that player what his or her assignments are and see if their athlete is recalling information appropriately. We as doctors and coaches are quicker to pull players to the sidelines and check on them before they go back into the game more than ever now.

Q: What efforts in the medical field are being made to help treat concussions?

Dr. Voytik: We are always coming up with better helmets to decrease the amount of force the head and neck region takes with impacts. There is a lot of science behind new helmets. Helmets will never prevent concussions, but our goal is to decrease the amount of force and rotational force that is sustained with head trauma.

There are some companies that are coming out with some Ketone pregame drinks that will be out probably in the next year. The ketones are the preferred energy of the brain and after a concussion there is an energy crisis that occurs in the brain. So there are some drinks that are coming out that an athlete can drink about thirty minutes before kickoff, which will hopefully decrease the extent of symptoms if a concussion does occur.

Q: What has Cleveland been doing to help bring more awareness to concussions and better understand when an athlete may have suffered a mild traumatic brain injury?

Dr. Voytik: With the ImPACT concussion testing program (the only FDA-cleared concussion assessment aids for ages 5-59) we are testing athletes from all high schools and middle schools in Cleveland and Bradley County usually before the opening to their camp season. We get the baseline brain data for each athlete, which really helps to have that information if they do have a concussion or suspected concussion.

I would like to thank Dr. Russell Dyer and Dr. Linda Cash for their leadership at their schools. Both of these school administrators have required that all of their middle school and high school athletes be baseline tested with the ImPACT baseline test. We are looked at by the state as having an excellent concussion program here in East Tennessee.

Q: A big deal has been made of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in studies of professional athletes who have passed away, can it affect young athletes and what do medical experts believe causes this?

Dr. Voytik: I think there has been some CTE in high school athletes. Not many, very few. Until we are able to have a nuclear imaging brain test while you are alive it will be hard to know the complete truths of CTE. There are a lot of theories about CTE and one of the working theories is that it is actually a result of long-term sub-concussive brain trauma. Not that obvious concussion we all see on the field. This deals with players just contacting their heads in practice where they don’t have a full-blown concussion.

The findings of CTE in professional athletes have led the NFL to cut down the amount of hitting. There is no hitting after Week 8 in the NFL at all during the practice week. That will trickle down as it already has to high school is to lessen the amount of contact and sub-concussive hits an athlete takes.

Q: Final thoughts on concussions?

Dr. Voytik: The awareness of concussions has definitely increased, therefore there are more reported concussions these days. We are becoming more vigilant as a society to be aware of concussions. Parents, athletic trainers, coaches and teammates can all help in this fight to always pay attention to an athlete after a hard hit to the head.

*Dr. Voytik is the team doctor/concussion consultant for Cleveland High School, Bradley Central High School, Walker Valley High School, Cleveland Middle School, Ocoee Middle School and Lake Forest Middle School. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the Tennessee Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association in Murfreesboro in 2016.