They aren’t obvious like bruises or broken bones, but concussions are a serious issue that bleeds into all levels of sport.
Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College are taking steps to protect student-athletes, having implemented new concussion protocols this year.
Jessica Josenhans, a former member of Dal’s volleyball team, suffered a concussion last year.
“For over a month, I was affected. I couldn’t watch television, I couldn’t read books. Very light sensitive. Not to mention, I had to miss all of my fall exams,” said Josenhans. “And after that, trying to go to the gym to do weight training for volleyball was exceptionally difficult.”
After taking several weeks off to rest, Josenhans returned to practice. However, her symptoms immediately returned.
She was referred to Patrick Thompson, a vestibular therapist at Lifemark. Thompson helps athletes deal with lingering symptoms, specifically with balance and stability.
Thompson was shocked to learn that the volleyball team did not implement baseline concussion testing. The testing helps measure the memory and reaction time of an athlete pre-injury.
“I’ve seen five or six Dal students come over and they don’t know what to do. There’s a disconnect there,” said Thompson.
Dalhousie has since implemented mandatory baseline concussion testing. In the past, the testing was not done for all athletes.
Tim Maloney, Dalhousie’s Athletic Director, says he believes the university has taken a big step into identifying and addressing the issue.
“We see them in soccer, we see them in basketball, we see them in volleyball. We see them in virtually every sport which is why now we are starting to implement baseline testing across the board,” says Maloney.
But it’s not a simple process. The baseline concussion test is only a small part in the struggle to treat brain injuries. Each concussed athlete faces their own challenges in returning. Sometimes, they get in their own way.
“The challenge is that these protocols, and testing, and assessments, are dependent on the response you get from the injured athlete. You’re hoping that everyone is giving you an honest answer,” says Maloney.
Caora McKenna played for King’s rugby and took a big hit in her last game as a varsity athlete. But she kept playing.
“I didn’t feel any severe symptoms right away and it was the last game of the season so I maybe convinced myself that it didn’t hurt and kept playing,” says McKenna.
Now, over a month later, she still has concussion symptoms. But she also has no regrets because she wanted to play every minute.
McKenna says she thinks King’s has done an excellent job supporting her through her injury. Her professor even allowed her to push back her honours project but she’s heard that’s not always the case.
“If they want you here to play sports, they need to support you academically and physically,” says Mckenna.
Baseline concussion testing is available at King’s and is highly encouraged. As of yet, it is not mandatory.
Neil Hooper, King’s Athletic Director, expects King’s to implement mandatory baseline testing soon. The way concussions are being diagnosed and treated is changing.
And the culture around concussions is changing too; universities are becoming more proactive.
“What we’re finding now is that the whole attention to detail and the publicity around concussions has actually heightened the sensitivity for student athletes. Now they’re actually very quick to disclose if they feel dizzy or have a headache,” says Hooper.
King’s currently has several student-athletes dealing with concussions.
At the end of the day, protocol is about safety. Education and treatment of concussions has grown considerably in the last decade and is trending in the right direction. It is something that can still be worked on, says Thompson.
“The bottom line is that, number one, identification is the most important key. But then, once they’re identified, they see someone that is trained to progress them along and to identify red flags, to identify barriers,” says Thompson. “I would like to see a team approach.”
A team approach is needed to face an issue that isn’t going away. The culture around concussions is changing for the better, but still has far to go in protecting athletes from playing through serious brain injuries.