Oakwood physicians help improve safety for athletes

Two recent studies reinforce the importance of legislation, just approved in Michigan, designed to protect athletes from sports-related concussions.

Published by Boston University School of Medicine researchers, one study finds new evidence linking repeated concussions to long-term brain injury, based on autopsies performed on the brains of 85 donors. It comes at a time when mounting concerns over the dangers of head injuries in contact sports have prompted legislation protecting young people and calls for an outright ban of tackle football for younger children.

The other, published by the Journal of Neuroscience, found brain changes in children who have suffered a concussion continue to occur—even after they no longer have symptoms of the injury.

“At every stage of every game, there is an overall risk of these kinds of injuries,” said Barbara Semakula, MD. “Children are more vulnerable to concussions because their brains are still developing.”

Dr. Semakula, who is pursuing a fellowship in Sports Medicine at Harvard University, was involved in the effort to get legislation approved in Michigan while she was the chief resident in the Oakwood Physical Medicine & Rehab department under Jay Meythaler, MD—who is the professor and chair of department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PM&R) at Wayne State University. Dr. Meythaler is the director of the PM&R residency program at Oakwood Heritage Hospital in Taylor.

Dr. Semakula, along with this year’s chief resident, Adam Pourcho, MD, led the Head’s Up Program for Sports Concussion Education and Screening, which was an effort through Oakwood Healthcare that included Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the Brain Injury Foundation of Michigan.

Dr. Semakula has been involved in the issue since 2009, when the State of Washington became the first of several to enact the legislation, named after 13-year-old Zachary Lystedt. Lystedt was a football player who slipped into a coma and required brain surgery after suffering two concussions in a single game. She said the goal was to get three states every year to approve legislation protecting young athletes, but since then 40 other states have put them in place. Hearings are scheduled in Ohio this week.

“Nobody expected this to happen so fast,” Dr. Semakula said of the changes sweeping the nation, “but it’s an important safety issue. We were able to make a compelling case for it.”

The legislation seeks to protect young athletes without causing a financial burden for school districts. It requires student athletes to be removed from games if they suffer a suspected concussion and not returned to play until they have written approval from a healthcare professional. It also asks the Michigan Department of Community Health to provide a resource center to concussion training and education. The laws have been endorsed by the National Football League.

“If you don’t take them out of play, there’s an increased chance of another concussion,” said Dr. Semakula. “We’re finding more and more evidence of the long-term effects that can result from these kinds of injuries and we need to take every safeguard available to protect our children. The brain is not a replaceable part of the body, like a knee or shoulder.”

For more information on the legislation and other sports-related topics, visit www.oakwoodsportsmedicine.com.