By Dr. Michael Sparks
Ben Bates played football like most 15-year-olds: full on, and with gusto. And, as is sometimes the case in contact sports, Ben has suffered a concussion. Although the last time was in sixth grade, Ben found himself in a similar position during preseason practice for the 2010 season in August. “I took a couple of shots to the head,” recalls Ben, who was a football quarterback at Newport (N.H.) High School. “Throughout the weekend…I had a headache. Monday it got worse, and Tuesday it got to the point where I couldn’t tolerate it anymore.”
Fearing another concussion, Ben’s parents took him to Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s new Sports Concussion Program in Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Department of Orthopaedics. The program is designed for athletes who have had a concussion and want or need a “return to play” program.
“Concussions have always been an issue in sports, however, they often went unrecognized and untreated,” says Program Director Michael B. Sparks, M.D. “We feel it’s important to educate families, athletes and coaches about this issue and the potential long-term consequences.”
“Knowing what we know about concussions — that you can’t sustain very many concussions without lifelong complications — it’s been a constant worry,” says Ben’s mom, Becky.
Doctors at the Sports Concussion Program evaluated Ben. Their diagnosis: it was a migraine, and not a concussion. “I took a CT scan, which came back negative and everything was fine, so they sent me home. That’s when we decided to come back and get a baseline test,” says Ben.
There are two components to the Sports Concussion Program: baseline testing and post-concussion management. In baseline testing, a one-hour neurocognitive test tracks an athlete’s normal visual, auditory and cognitive functions. A baseline balance test is also available. Test results are kept on record, available in the event that the athlete suffers a concussion.
Post-concussion management involves a physical exam, an evaluation of the effects of the concussion on daily functions such as eating and sleeping, and on symptoms experienced since the concussion. Additional neurocognitive and balance testing will determine if there is any change from the athlete’s baseline scores. A “return to play” plan is then developed specific to the athlete.
“We had our answer the following day, after we had the test done,” says Becky. “Everything was explained so thoroughly. They were speaking our language: they were talking about sports, and situations that we’d dealt with before. I felt very informed and very comfortable.”
Ben has become an advocate for baseline testing. “I would definitely recommend baseline testing to my fellow players,” he says. “At our school we tend to go all-out, as hard as we can in practice and in games. If they have baseline testing, they can go get checked out, and it’ll be a lot safer.”
Dr. Michael Sparks is the program director for the Sports Concussion Program and division leader of Sports Medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He is a fellowship-trained orthopedic surgery and has been with DHMC since 1998 treating patients with sports medicine injuries and joint pain.