Athletic trainers are essential in triaging various types of athletic injuries on and off the field prior to allowing an athlete to return to play. It may be necessary to refer to a physician for clearance, particularly in head injuries in order to safely return the athlete to physical activities. Concussions are constantly in the media these days, with a great deal of discussion regarding health risks, both short and long term, in various sports; so it is very important to make the correct call when allowing an athlete to return to play. As a certified athletic trainer, I would like to share an interesting case about an athlete’s experience with a concussion. Hopefully, by sharing these types of experiences, it will help health care providers determine when it is appropriate for an athlete to return to play after a head injury.

In this case, a high school football player was hitting a pad in practice then fell down, hitting his head face first on the ground. He somehow bounced off the pad and then hit the back of his head on the ground. The player immediately experienced dizziness and headaches. However, he had no loss of consciousness, so I directed him sit out of practice and then evaluated him. I used the SCAT5 concussion assessment exam, which is tool that is used at all levels in order to evaluate a concussion. The score on test was slightly elevated due to his symptoms, which helped me promptly diagnose a concussion, so I instructed him to see his doctor for a formal evaluation. His mother took him to his primary care pediatrician and the doctor performed a basic exam where he only checked his eyes and asked about his current symptoms. The doctor subsequently wrote a note to clear him return to play. When I received the note, I was concerned because his symptoms had not completely resolved. I put him through intense running exercises and his symptoms immediately returned. Because I was concerned about the athlete’s persistent symptoms, I sent him to one of our sports medicine physicians, Dr. DeCastro, who commonly treats many of our concussions with MUSC Health Sports Medicine.

It is essential that physicians and athletic trainers to work to together when dealing with head injuries, so an athlete does not fall through the cracks. This head injury could have been more serious or even fatal if it had not been caught and the athlete held out of sporting activities. Currently this athlete continues to recover, but it has been nearly three months since the injury and this athlete continues to experience post-concussion symptoms. I would like Dr. DeCastro to share his experience from a physician’s point of view.   

Dr. Alec DeCastro, Chief of Primary Care Sports Medicine, MUSC Health:

Concussions have garnered a lot of media attention over the past few years, and are prevalent in football but even in non-collision sports. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently estimated that 1.7 million people in the U.S. suffer some form of traumatic brain injury every year, which is twice the number of heart attacks that strike Americans each year. About 75 percent of those brain injuries are considered concussions or other forms of mild injury. And 80 to 90 percent of people will recover from a concussion within a seven to 10-day period, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The hype regarding concussions has caused a lot of trepidation in sports, particularly after the recent movie starring Will Smith. Actually, the condition discovered in the movie by Dr. Bennett Omalu is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Education regarding concussions is the key, and recognizing early signs and symptoms may make all the difference for athletes, parents, and coaches. The CDC has created an initiative called Heads-up Concussion, which has resources and tools to help recognize, respond to, and minimize the risks of concussion.  

It is important that the physician and athletic trainer to work together and apply an individualized approach to the diagnosis and care management of athletes with these types of head injuries. One of the most valuable factors in managing concussions is the athletic trainer’s comprehensive knowledge of the individual athlete. It may be imperative that whoever works most regularly with the athlete reviews his or her treatment. The athlete’s history, behavior, and risk factors need to be included as well in order to figure out the best patient-centered care plan for speediest recovery of the athlete’s concussion.