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SBJ/June 15 - 21, 1998/No Topic Name
New emphasis on head injuries
Published June 15, 1998
Mention a head case to sports doctors these days and you won't get many references to Dennis Rodman or any other behaviorally challenged athlete.
Instead, team physicians are focusing their attention on the relatively unknown effects related to concussions.
A decade ago, it was the knee that dominated sports medicine circles. From that came the development of arthroscopic surgery, which replaced major surgery in many instances and put athletes back on the field in just a few weeks after treatment. Arthroscopic surgery is routine among athletes who need minor knee, shoulder and elbow surgery. Surgical advances in repairing torn anterior cruciate ligaments in the knee have also evolved, allowing players to continue their careers who in the past would have been forced to retire.
Now, yesterday's knee is today's brain as sports medicine officials focus on the impact of concussions.
This year, the NFL, which recently has seen a number of players forced to retire after suffering multiple concussions, spent more than $1 million on a two-year research project to measure the long-term effects on players who have sustained concussions.
The league hopes that the study will help prevent injuries such as those that forced Merrill Hoge and Al Toon to retire. The brain, however, is much more complex than the knee.
Unlike a torn ACL or most other injuries, physicians have a hard time diagnosing concussions. Unless there is major trauma to the brain, concussions don't show up on MRI brain scans. Other than rest, there isn't specific care that can alleviate the debilitating effects of multiple concussions. Each brain reacts differently to different levels of trauma, making it difficult to establish medical standards of care.
"It's an area of controversy," said Dr. Ed Wojtys, a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School who is leading a study on concussions that will be released this fall. "There have been a number of high-profile athletes who've recently had their careers ended or jeopardized by concussions, and it brought [concussions] to the forefront."
While there is a major emphasis among sports doctors to develop ways to treat and prevent concussions, new frontiers such as gene therapy, the insertion of normal or altered genes to replace defective genes, will eventually creep into sports.
"We are learning how to resurface joints, save cartilage and cause ligaments to heal themselves," said Dr. Robert Leach, former team doctor for the Boston Celtics. "In the next 10 years, gene therapy will become big."