Mayo researchers applaud tougher concussion rulesby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Rochester, Minn. — Yesterday, NFL officials announced fines against three players for dangerous hits in games last weekend, and suspensions could also be handed out for hits that violate league rules.
But it's not just athletes from contact sports that have gotten people talking about concussions. Minnesota Twins star Justin Morneau sat out a large part of the season recovering from a concussion.
Doctors, scientists, and officials from the playing field and hockey rink are talking about concussions today at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center.
Doctors attending the summit at Mayo welcomed the news about the NFL suspending players for violent hits.
David Dodick, a professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus who directs the headache and concussion program, said stricter rules are long overdue.
"Players will now think twice about lunging at another player or tackling with their head down or going at another player with their head down so as not to risk a helmet to helmet hit," Dodick said.
Dodick said that while the two-day summit focuses on ice hockey, the issues apply to all sports. Concussions are increasingly common among athletes, and Dodick said he wants players and coaches to take the condition more seriously.
"We're coming to realize that even when an athlete, for example, comes back to normal and may not have any symptoms, that the brain may not be completely recovered," he said. "In the future we are going to probably employ more of our sophisticated imaging techniques that we have available to us to determine truly when an athlete's brain has returned to normal, in addition to the athlete returning to normal."
NFL officials said suspensions will be in place for this weekend's games and could be handed out for hits that took place last Sunday. In the past, players were either fined or ejected for illegal hits, but the NFL broadened its punishments after a series of questionable tackles.
Dodick said most athletes recover from concussions over time, but the danger comes when they return to play too quickly. This makes them more vulnerable to repeat injuries, and that can have lingering effects, including a greater chance of developing Alzheimer's disease.
"There's a cascade of events that occur where chemicals rush into the cell and the cell doesn't function properly," he said. "And not only does the cell not function properly, but the wire to the next cell doesn't function properly. And that accounts for why athletes report the symptoms that they do."
Doctors say the NFL's move is a step it the right direction, but they insist it's going to take a much larger shift for some sports to become safer for players.
Jonathan Finnoff, a physician and assistant professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Mayo's Sports Medicine Center, said concussions are considered an invisible injury, which is part of the reason they're so dangerous.
"If somebody comes out and they can't walk because they tore a ligament in their knee, obviously they cant go back in and play," Finnoff said. "But if somebody comes out and they have a headache, then a lot of people can't understand why that person can't play."
Finnoff said the consequences for an illegal or inappropriate hit haven't been significant enough to keep players from doing it. But now, with game suspensions and the monetary consequences that come with them, he believes players and coaches will take it a lot more seriously.
"We should never be saying, 'Boy, he came back from that concussion and played in the second half and he's tough.' I mean, absolutely, nobody that has a concussion should be going back in and playing the same game," he said.
Finnoff and other doctors believe spectators should be able to enjoy high-contact sports like hockey and football without compromising the safety and well-being of the players, and they urge athletes of all ages to adopt stricter return-to-play rules to protect them from repeat concussions.
- Morning Edition, 10/20/2010, 7:46 a.m.