The dangers of concussions

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Chris Nowinski, former professional wrestler and co-founder of Sports Legacy Institute, speaks to students about concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.
Photo by Cedric Roldan

This year’s Brain Awareness Week ran from April 7-11 and highlighted what Dr. Skyla Herod, the director, described as a “very widespread” problem: traumatic brain injuries.

Herod hosted two events this week: one on Tuesday evening with nationally renowned speaker and former professional wrestler Chris Nowinski, and one Thursday evening with a panel that included brain injury experts and two APU football coaches to discuss sports-related concussions.

“I felt [sports-related concussions] was a topic of more immediate interest to the APU community at large and to our student athletes,” Herod said.

According to Herod, at least 200 students and other guests showed up at the Tuesday event to hear Nowinski, co-founder of nonprofit concussion research and education group Sports Legacy Institute, speak about recent research and developments regarding changes in the brain following repeated concussions. Nowinski also spoke about how these changes can bring on “a disease-like state in the brain” and pointed to recent scandals in the NFL, wrestling and other contact sports, Herod said.

“For me, that was really eye-opening, that you can get a degenerative disease simply from lots of contact, like head injuries,” said junior applied exercise science major Michael Kochka, who played football throughout high school and suffered at least four concussions.

Kochka said another point that stood out to him during Nowinski’s lecture was when he showed them a clip of children “running at each other at full speed” for football and tackling drills.

“Obviously they had helmets, but the thing is is that you still get concussions and in my opinion, helmets give you a false sense of security,” Kochka said. “When I played football, I used my head to block people or tackle people. That’s not proper form in the first place, but that was how I was taught when I was little.”

During the Q-and-A session at the end, athletic training associate professor Chris Schmidt, who shows an HBO “Real Sports” clip featuring Nowinski to his class every year, asked the speaker whether he would ever let his son, if he had one, play football. Nowinski answered that he would “prefer” his son pick a sport that presents a smaller risk of physical head injury.

Later, Schmidt told The Clause that from the lecture, he learned about some new treatments and how to identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy in living people. CTE, a degenerative disease found in a small percentage of athletes who have suffered repetitive brain trauma, causes individuals to show symptoms of dementia, aggression, confusion and depression.

“Because CTE right now, you can only look at cadaver brains,” Schmidt said. “So I think that’s exciting to hear, some of the cutting-edge research of treatment.”

The second event, the panel discussion, highlighted “the scope of what TBI is and who it impacts and how we treat it,” Herod said. Audience members heard from experts from local brain injury centers as well as Victor Santa Cruz, APU head football coach, and Gabe Higerd, assistant coach and special teams coordinator. Higerd, a veteran, suffered a TBI in active duty, according to Herod.

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Dr. Skyla Herod, director of Brain Awareness Week, serves as a moderator for a panel of two brain injury experts and two APU football coaches. Photo credit: Kimberly Smith

Herod said the involvement from the football coaching staff showed that APU is “a transformational community” that puts the health and safety of their athletes first.

“There’s a lot of schools that you hear about … where [Nowinski] will go to a school to speak and the head coach will call a mandatory practice so his players don’t hear the message. The opposite happened here,” she said. “Our coaches encouraged their players to go, and that was really affirming to me.”

While the event was only sponsored by the biology and chemistry departments, undergraduate and graduate psychology departments and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences last year, this year several other campus departments joined: the provost’s office, athletics, the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program and the School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences, according to Herod.

In addition, Herod amped up the social media-marketing campaign this year and said it has been the most successful observance yet.

“Just going into classrooms and having people know now what Brain Awareness Week is was really reaffirming,” she said. “It’s becoming part of APU’s culture, which is great.”

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