When 16-year-old Amy Whitney was accidentally pushed into a wall by another student during gym class last October, nobody thought much of it. Although she complained of dizziness and nausea, and had no memory of actually hitting her head, her gym teacher mistook it for a headache and told her to just sit down for awhile.
But her symptoms persisted. “I felt strange, confused about things that I normally didn’t find confusing,” Amy said. “I felt dizzy and tired and I was very sensitive to bright lights and noises.”
Her mother, Diane Tardif, was worried so she made an appointment a couple of days later but her doctor didn’t seem to know why she would be having these symptoms. Tardif then took her to physiotherapist Ronny Varga, who said Amy’s symptoms pointed to a concussion and referred her to the hospital. The resulting diagnosis of a severe concussion came as a bit of a surprise to the teenager, who had thought this type of injury only happened to hockey players.
Amy and her family learned that concussions can occur when anyone undergoes a head trauma or injury. But despite the large number of media stories of late about this type of injury, many people still don’t recognize the symptoms. Moreover, coaches, gym teachers and referees are not required to have any special training about how to deal with concussions.
But now there is a new resource available to help families, coaches and teachers recognize the symptoms and take steps to prevent these injuries. It’s a bilingual website, www.reACTcanada.org, which will be officially launched on March 1 to mark Concussion Awareness Month. The site presents information about prevention and treatment in an easy-to-read format. It also features a forum where people can post questions and get answers based on the most current research and best practices.
The site was created by Varga, owner of Action Sport Physio-Montreal West, in conjunction with Chris Costello, a medical student and occupational therapist. Both had treated injured athletes and understood the pressure people felt to get players back into the game as soon as possible. However, as medical professionals, they also know that brain injuries not treated correctly can lead to long-term impairment, including memory loss.
While Varga and Costello wanted to provide information through their website, they also decided to create a certification program for coaches and referees. “We are dealing with teams that don’t have doctors, athletic directors or physiotherapists,” explains Varga. “We can’t assume coaches can spot the symptoms.”
The certification program will help adults identify the signs of concussions so they can make educated decisions about when to let a player return to the sport. Athletes, their families and coaches may face pressure about allowing a young person to start playing again — especially if the athlete in question is one of team’s top players or an important match is coming up. However, returning too soon after an injury can jeopardize healing and put a player at risk for further complications.
Experts like Varga and Costello say people often underestimate the impact a concussion can have on a young person. For example, Amy is still unable to attend school because of her injury and she’s not sure if she’ll be able to graduate this spring. Recovery has meant complete physical and cognitive rest: no schoolwork, no electronics, no TV and as much sleep as her body needs. She says some of her friends don’t understand why she couldn’t just get “back to normal” right away. “It’s hard to explain something that’s so severe and so terrible,” she says. “I often use [injured hockey player] Sydney Crosby as an example of how long it can take to recover.”
Think HEADS-UP if a child is injured
ReACT offers parents, coaches and referees this acronym to help remember and identify the symptoms of a concussion. They suggest parents make sure their kids get medical help if they show any of the following symptoms after a bad fall or a blow to the head.
H Headache — does the child have a one?
E Eyes – is there a change in vision, blurriness or sensitivity to light?
A Attention – can the child concentrate, read, do schoolwork?
D Disorientation – can the child identify the time, where he is, what game he is playing and remember the score?
S Sickness – is there nausea and/or vomiting?
U Understanding – can the child follow simple questions and perform simple tasks?
P Personality change – is the child suddenly overly emotional, giggling, angry?
Raising awareness about head injuries is also a priority for the Montreal Children’s Hospital, which recently issued a new version of its Concussion Kit, a free, bilingual, downloadable set of documents providing information about symptoms, treatment and prevention. (The kit is available at www.thechildren.com/trauma.) Every year, the hospital treats more than 1,000 young patients for sports-related concussions and the hospital’s trauma unit would like to see that number drop. They hope parents, coaches, teachers and others will take the time to read and use their kit, which includes easy-to-carry cards listing concussion symptoms and guidelines for when it is safe to return to an activity.
Concussion lecture in March
Parents, coaches and athletes can learn more about concussions, the risks and how to minimize long-term problems from them at a lecture on March 12 given by Laura Leslie, who works at the Concordia Physio Sports clinic and has studied concussions and head traumas. She will present the newest research and provide information on how to determine if athletes are ready to return to their sport. The lecture takes place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Beaconsfield Recreation Centre, 1974 City Lane, Beaconsfield. Admission is free but spaces must be reserved by March 9 in person at the recreation centre or by calling (514) 428-4520.