A closer look at head injuries

Medical proffessionals hope research will help save lives

Posted 4/20/10

Recent national attention on the potential long-term impacts of head injuries has local medical professionals launching their own studies and …

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A closer look at head injuries

Medical proffessionals hope research will help save lives


Recent national attention on the potential long-term impacts of head injuries has local medical professionals launching their own studies and researching the best treatment options.

Head injuries, particularly concussions, are a given in contact sports, and when the recreation season is year-round, like it is in Colorado, hospitals see a steady stream of patients with varying degrees of injury. Concussions have made headlines in recent years as professional hockey and football leagues are eyeing new measures to protect players who take repeated hits.

Brain scans on retired National Football League players have revealed significant damage and can sometimes look like a late-stage Alzheimer’s patient. The death of actress Natasha Richardson after she hit her head in a skiing accident brought the topic to the forefront again and had many people raising questions on what symptoms to look for and how to best treat a head injury.

But data on teen head injuries and the affects on the brain is scarce. Dr. Sue Kirelik, director of pediatrics at Sky Ridge Medical Center, noticed the glaring absence of research and proven methods to manage teens who show symptoms of a concussion. After looking into it, she realized that she and other doctors were not up to speed on the most effective treatments.

“I went and started to look at the literature in detail and found these newer recommendations that nobody knew about,” Kirelik said. “I realized we weren’t doing things the right way at all.”

She decided to launch a new program in 2008 aimed at tracking teen athletes who sustain multiple head traumas via before and after scans. Kirelik is especially passionate about raising awareness about second impact syndrome, a rare but often fatal medical condition in which two head injuries occur within a short period of time.

“The thing we’re concerned about is if the brain’s not fully recovered, you might be very vulnerable if you get hit again,” she said. “We don’t want to put those kids back in the game if we know their brain isn’t fully functional.”

The Jantz family knows firsthand the pain that can be caused by such a little-known condition. Jake Jantz, a freshman football player at Grandview High School, died in 2004 after collapsing on the field before a snap. He had sustained repeated blows to the head and exhibited symptoms, including tingling in his hands, after a taking a hit to the head about a week before he died. Jake did not return to the game, but was back on the playing field within days. He would have turned 20 years old April 19.

His mother, Kelli, hopes coaches, parents, trainers and even the athletes themselves can learn the indicators of a head injury and heed the warning signs.

“I want everybody to pay attention because we all have a role and responsibility,” she said. “There is always a big push to be tough and excel, but sometimes it comes at a huge price.”

Local schools are now getting involved, and Kirelik has established a relationship with the Douglas County School District’s head of student wellness, Dr. Paulette Joswick, to try and track the impacts of head injuries. Douglas County schools now conduct basic neuropsychological tests on freshman and juniors in higher-risk sports to determine possible changes in cognitive function or learning ability after a head injury.

With permission from the patient, the Douglas County School District has access to medical tests and scans from Sky Ridge, but because of stringent student privacy rules, the flow of information does not go the other way yet, Kirelik said.

“No one has tracked these kids for a long period of time,” she said. “We want to see if an injury in second grade affects their learning abilities later.”

Roughly 95 percent of those with head injuries fully recover with limited activity and plenty of rest, but permanent damage in others can sometimes show up later in the form of emotional issues and cognitive deficiencies.

The Colorado High School Activities Association recently approved a new set of guidelines that require a medical provider’s note for an athlete to get back into a game after a head injury. Kirelik is also hoping coaches and parents look into the REAP Program, which is a how-to guide for recognizing symptoms and determining the best course of action for treatment.

“Our goal is to have everyone develop a clear understanding of how to recognize a head injury and how to treat it so our kids are safe,” Kirelik said.

Kelli Jantz applauded the move by CHSAA and said raising awareness could prevent another death on the sports field. Her son was only 14 when he died, and she is using the tragedy as a lesson for others.

“We certainly don’t blame anyone for his death, but want to make sure people know that there can be consequences to these types of injuries,” Jantz said. “Jake suffered the ultimate consequence.”


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