Concussions have been front and center in the news for the last few years. According to the Mayo Clinic, a concussion is “a traumatic brain injury that alters the way the brain functions. Effects are usually temporary but can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination. ” Technological advances in Sports Neurology have doctors concerned that such a broad definition does the public a great and very harmful disservice.
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In his article, “Plain Talk On Concussions,” Sports Neurologist, Dr. Vernon Williams, explains that the public’s understanding of concussions has been oversimplified for many years. There are many factors to take into consideration when evaluating a patient. They can include previous brain injury, age, and even gender. Dr. Williams explains that,
“You can’t see a concussion on x-ray, CAT scan, or most MRI’s. But the lack of abnormality on those tests does not mean the brain hasn’t been injured. The injury occurs on a cellular level. When special methods are used, there is evidence of change in how the brain is working that last for days to weeks (evidence of persistent brain dysfunction) even when the injured athlete feels that they are back to 100% and the physical examination is normal.”
Players who engage in high contact sports like football have a high risk for concussion. The problem has become so pervasive that parents and players have pressured the NFL and the NCAA to tighten safety standards. Innovations in helmet safety have come too late for many players. When NFL Hall of Famer, Mike Webster, was diagnosed with a progressive degenerative disease of the brain known as CTE, fellow retirees took note. Before his death, Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, and chronic pain, all symptoms of CTE.
Since then, approximately 5,000 retired players have filed suit against the NFL alleging the entity hid the dangers of concussions. Among the plaintiffs in these lawsuits are Art Monk, Tony Dorsett, Jim McMahon, Jamal Anderson, and Ray Easterling. Considering how high profile these cases have become, it is no wonder that brain injury has become a growing concern in Sports Medicine litigation.
Concussion litigation in the NFL, sports clubs, and even in school yards across the country have garnered so much attention that George Washington University’s law school has developed a course devoted solely to the legal implications of traumatic brain injuries. Michael Kaplen, who teaches the course, is a plaintiffs’ lawyer who has worked on cases involving traumatic brain injuries for more than two decades. Kaplen believes the NFL became responsible for the safety of its players when it began studying the cause and effect of concussions over twenty years ago. (See article in The NewYorkTimes.com).
Public safety is the common thread for sports neurologists like Dr. Vernon Williams and litigators like Michael Kaplen. With advances in medical technology, doctors have learned that the basic warning signs of a concussion which have prevailed for so many years are no longer sufficient. In light of this progress, making the NFL and other organizations accountable for the well-being of its players may be the catalyst to improved neurological health not only for athletes, but for everyone who has suffered traumatic brain injury.
*Vernon B. Williams, MD specializes in Sports Concussions, Sports Neurology, and Pain Medicine. Dr. Williams is the Founding Director, Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, CA. His clients include the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Kings, Los Angeles Sparks, among many others. Dr. Williams’ Profiles on Experts.com.