Increased concussion awareness may have unintended impacts

Experts worry parents, players missing key messages

By Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H. - Producer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Concussion awareness has certainly changed.

Just ask Dr. Steven Broglio, director of the NeuroTrauma Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

"When I started in this field, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, we would almost laugh at the person who had a concussion," said Broglio. "And we'd put them back into play 20 minutes later."

Broglio is glad those days are gone.

"We recognize a concussion as a brain injury, and we are much more careful about our management and how we treat those individuals," said Broglio.

But Broglio, like many experts in the field, is concerned that fear of concussions is leading some parents to pull their children out of many sports.

"It's pretty obvious, as a country, as a nation, we've got a physical activity problem," said Broglio.  "I think when we start talking eliminating sports or restricting access to sports because of potential fears, nothing has actually been proven, then that's just going to exacerbate that problem.  We know for sure what happens when you lay on the couch and don't get physical activity. We know what those outcomes look like, and they're not good."

He thinks rule changes are one avenue to reduce the overall risk.

"It's very wise to have a conversation about how do we make these games safer, particularly the contact collision sports," said Broglio.

Media feeding concussion fears?

While media reports have raised awareness, Broglio says some have also fed those fears.

"Headlines are written in a way to draw people in and to get them to click, whether they actually read the article or not," said Broglio.

One example is reports surrounding the highly publicized study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL players.

"For example, you often see 99 percent of NFL players have CTE.  That's a falsehood.  That's not true. We don't know what percentage of current or former NFL athletes have that disease," said Broglio.

It's true that researchers found 99 percent of those brains tested showed signs of CTE, but it's also critical to understand that all of the brains studied were donated by players and families already concerned about CTE.

"That's not representative of all NFL athletes," explained Broglio.

Experts have also raised concern that there are current and former NFL players who may be suffering from other brain conditions that are treatable, but may be going undiagnosed.

"I think blaming everything on CTE while other neurological issues, psychiatric issues may be going on, that's part where things are getting muddy," said Broglio.  "I think we need to understand that these things can occur independent of each other or at the same time, but how they interact, we don't understand."

Broglio is also concerned that parents may be getting the wrong impression from media coverage.

"I think people draw from what's reported at the collegiate or professional level and then they make an automatic assumption that applies to a teenager or youth athlete," said Broglio.  "People make that automatic assumption, but it's just not true."

Broglio says there is also a key message the media is missing.

"I think the thing in the media that's not covered is really the improvements in the medical coverage and medical care that's been taking place in the last ten to 15 years," said Broglio.  "We have a very standard protocol that most people go through. There's international guidelines on how to manage the injury, and the time out of sport once the injury is diagnosed is expanded from about 6 or 7 days out to about 13 or 14 days. That expansion has really reduced the risk of repeat injury in the same season, and we have some early data to suggest that it's reducing poor outcomes down the line. Those are the positive stories that we don't really see that get portrayed on websites or through news or through print."

Looking to the future, Broglio is excited about research into blood biomarkers.

"You can almost imagine like a diabetes test.  It's a pin prick on the sideline.  You get a 'yes, no' answer in a couple minutes.  I think that's going  to revolutionize the field on how we diagnose and manage," said Broglio. 

He believes in the future, we'll understand much more about why people suffer concussions and how to prevent them.

"We have a project where we've enrolled about 35,000 collegiate athletes from across the country, as well military service academy cadets, and our goal is to track them for the next 30 years," said Broglio.

As for the much publicized 'concussion crisis' -- 

"I don't think it's a crisis. I think the injury has always been there. I think the numbers have always been there. I think we're starting to get a better grasp on what they are and the seriousness of it," said Broglio.

RELATED: Former Michigan star Chris Hutchinson '100 percent comfortable' with son playing football at U of M

Copyright 2017 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.