Concussions are the talk of sports these days. Ex-NFLers are filing suits against the league saying it is clear that the league knew about the dangers of head trauma, knew them a long time ago but, did nothing. Parents in the U.S. and Canada are starting to pull their elementary and junior high kids out of tackle football and hockey leagues that permit body-checking. Even the President has talked about his own experience with concussions (mild he was quick to note!) and convened a high level summit at the White House of all the movers and shakers in the field to discuss the problem.
The NFL is so freaked out about the threat concussions pose to the long-term profitability of the sport that they are trying to calm worried moms with ad campaigns that tout the certification of coaches who teach the ‘safe’ way to play (good luck with that). And arguments are breaking out about whether there is too much emphasis on football and men’s hockey when wrestling, lacrosse, soccer, martial arts, and women’s basketball have their own problems with keeping player’s heads intact (kind of an odd form of anti-discrimination). Some sports experts are even bemoaning the fact that the emerging obsession with preventing, diagnosing and treating concussions is diverting too much attention and resources away from other serious health issues that athletes face including bullying, eating disorders, orthopedic injuries and the abuse of legal and illegal drugs.
The fall sports season is tantalizingly near; players and fans alike are gearing up for the Friday night lights and Sunday afternoon showdowns. But the season comes at a cost; every bone-jarring hit and wince-inducing header carries the risk of sustaining a concussion.
Most media coverage focuses on the National Football League’s professional players, but 65% of traumatic brain injuries are sustained by children. The majority are thought to be undiagnosed, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year. This puts athletes at risk of sustaining a second concussion before their brains are fully healed, leading to longer recoveries, permanent neurological damage, and the potentially-fatal Second Impact Syndrome.
A just-released app hopes to change that. Sway Medical, founded by Chase Curtiss in 2011, aims to help health professionals objectively rate the risk of concussion at the source: on the football field or soccer pitch. On-the-spot concussion diagnosis is just the beginning, though; in the near future, the young company plans to enter the hospital space by the end of the year.
The FDA-approved app, called Sway Balance, uses proprietary software and the iPhone’s accelerometer to assess an athlete’s balance over time. In a phone interview, founder and CEO Chase Curtiss said that the app can be used by a health professional to “set up a baseline,” then “compare an athlete over the course of a season to that established norm.” Poor performance compared to baseline is indicative of a possible concussion.
Health care professionals can purchase a yearly subscription to the app for $199 – a fraction of the cost of a typical balance platform – and the patient-facing app is free to download.
Sway Medical has partnered with ImPACT Applications, an organization which Curtiss described as conducting the “gold standard of concussion testing on the market.” ImPACT uses baseline cognitive testing – verbal and visual memory, processing speed, and reaction time – and synchronous testing immediately after a hit to assess if a concussion has occurred.
“But you don’t have an element of physical control of the body,” Curtiss said – which is where Sway Balance comes in. “[ImPACT’s] interest in us is in pairing a balance test with cognitive testing.”
“Would I let my son play football?”
It’s a question that more and more parents are asking themselves these days. There are some people out there who say, “No way!”
Football is way too violent and should be abolished as a sport. Even some NFL players admit that they would not let their own sons play football. Then there are others, fierce advocates who think football is a wonderful game with tremendous benefits to its participants and think all of the media hype about injuries are just overrated scare tactics and headline grabbers.
But the majority of us are probably somewhere in the middle and aren’t quite sure what to think. So why don’t we spend a little time sifting through all the facts and emotions and see if we can make some logical decisions about the subject. I have an interesting perspective in that I am a sports medicine physician who is a true fan of the game, has played the game, has sustained injuries and has a son of my own.
Thus I can see the argument from all sides. Let’s start with the physician side. My job is taking care of injured athletes. I see patients with fractures, sprains, strains, overuse injuries, head injuries, concussions, trauma, you name it. During the months of August, September, October and November, I probably see more patients than I do for the entire remainder of the year. Why? Football season.
If you are reading this then you are already well aware of the current concussion crisis in the NFL. No matter where on the spectrum your opinions lie regarding this topic, there is one question that still remains: How did we get here? Surely if something has gone wrong then there must be someone to blame for it. Was it the league’s fault? The coaches? The players? The doctors? Maybe it is the injury itself that’s to blame? Perhaps it was just the perfect storm of a number of factors that put us in this situation? To truly get to the bottom of this, it is important to have a better understanding of the doctor-patient relationship. Not just in general, but specifically as it applies to concussed athletes in the NFL. Ultimately we may not find blame here, but we should at least shed some light on the realities of the situation.
As a sports medicine physician, I have taken care of thousands of concussed athletes at all levels. Eight year old hockey players, high school soccer players, collegiate football players, professional moto-cross racers and skaters, you name it. For all of them, the doctor-patient dynamic is similar. However, for the NFL players, that dynamic is entirely different. Let’s begin by looking at the usual non-NFL doctor-patient relationship.