Head injuries focus of UF efforts


Gainesville Hurricanes Jordan Giberti blocks during a punt against the Vanguard Knights on Friday in Gainesville, Fla. Gainesville defeated Vanguard 34-19. (Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)

Published: Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 5:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 5:53 p.m.

Ask a Gator fan about the hit that gave Tim Tebow a concussion in a 2009 game against Kentucky and many still cringe.

Facts

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

Signs observed by coaching staff:
-- Appears dazed or stunned.
-- Forgets an instruction.
-- Is unsure of game, score or opponent.
-- Moves clumsily.
-- Answers questions slowly.
-- Loses consciousness (even briefly).
-- Shows mood, behavior or personality changes.
-- Can't recall events before or after hit or fall.
Symptoms reported by athlete:
-- Headache or “pressure” in head.
-- Nausea or vomiting.
-- Balance problems, dizziness or confusion.
-- Double or blurry vision.
-- Sensitivity to light or noise.
-- Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy.
-- Concentration or memory problems.
-- Does not “feel right” or is “feeling down.”
Info taken from the CDC website

Jordan Giberti likened his first sports-induced concussion to that memorable blow. Immediately, he was nauseous and confused and stumbled to the bench to sit.

His most recent major hit was on Sept. 6. Giberti said he felt so sick afterward that the sound of the school band, the lights — any stimuli — hurt.

“I just wanted to get in a dark room,” he said.

Giberti said he has endured four such concussions, two from accidents in elementary school, two more on the football field.

He is 15 years old.

Giberti and others like him are at the forefront of the biggest medical issue in sports today, the incidence of concussions among all levels of athletes.

More information is emerging about the long-term effects of repeated head trauma as reports pile up of athletes having memory loss, paralysis and even depression leading to suicide after they leave the playing field.

Health experts at the University of Florida are taking steps to help athletes, particularly high school-age players, recover from concussions and to teach parents and coaches how to identify and prevent the injuries.

Since August, the UF Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation divisions of Sports Medicine and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation have set aside two to three spots every afternoon specifically for sports-related concussion appointments.

Dr. Seth Smith, co-medical director of high school outreach at the division, noted that the slots are in the afternoon to make it more convenient for youth athletes who are in school during the day.

It's one of a number of efforts at UF that includes a program called Athlete Brain, which focuses on sports concussions, and a program that sends athletic trainers to area high schools.

Much of the attention nationwide is being aimed at younger athletes. According to federal reports, between 1.6 million and 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur every year. A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that concussions accounted for 15 percent of all sports-related injuries in U.S. high schools.

Giberti is one of those statistics.

Now a freshman on the Gainesville High School varsity football team, he said the culture of sports needs to change.

“We need a better system because kids can easily lie, and it's not safe for the players and not good for the game,” Giberti said.

Giberti said there is no doubt in his mind that players lie all the time about the severity of their injuries, which he attributes to a combination of a lack of education and a strong desire to make a name for themselves in high school sports, which can lead to college scholarships.

Giberti said he respects that athletes want to play and that they might think he is exaggerating — but the effects are real.

“I know in my future there are bigger and better things,'' he said, “and I don't want to make a mistake in my ninth-grade year.”

***

This past summer, Florida became the 38th state to pass legislation regarding youth athletes and concussions. The law mandates that any youth athlete suspected of a concussion or head injury be removed from practice and competition until cleared by a health care professional.

However, being able to identify whether an athlete has suffered a concussion is not easy.

“You're lucky if you have a doctor as a dad or someone on the sidelines to help out,” Giberti said.

He said he was playing in the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County football league in eighth grade when he experienced what he calls his first “legit concussion.”

He said his mother, a nurse, knew immediately that something was wrong. At halftime, she administered some basic memory tests. They decided together that he would take two weeks off.

After a concussion last month, he missed three days of school and the next four games of the season.

Giberti said he feels the most important thing is that young players understand the effects of untreated concussions so that they will report them to their coaches and parents.

Mark Kahn, sports director of the Boys and Girls Club, said meetings are held every season for coaches at which a doctor discusses sports-related issues.

But even getting a doctor to those meetings can prove difficult, he said.

The opposite is true for the outreach efforts by the UF health professionals.

At the UF Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, Smith and Dr. Jason Zaremski joined the team of five doctors in August. They have begun a lecture series aimed at educating coaches, parents and youth athletes so they can better diagnose and prevent sports-induced concussions.

The first lecture took place on Sept. 25, and there were about a dozen people in attendance.

They plan to have another session in December or January, and they have been trying to meet face to face with coaches to set up more talks at schools.

Kahn said Smith already has agreed to meet with coaches and seems open to the idea of working to meet with and educate players as well.

“We want the community to know the UF Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Institute is here and happy to help,” Zaremski said.

***

Aliyah Snyder, a 26-year-old graduate student in the department of clinical and health psychology at UF, was ready to go to the 2014 Winter Olympics for a little-known sport called skeleton, which she describes as head-first bobsledding.

After suffering multiple concussions that were not properly recognized and treated, she was forced to retire and recover.

“I ran the gamut of concussion symptoms,” Snyder said. These have included emotional swings, difficulty concentrating, zoning out and more.

Though she is coming up on three years post-injury, she said she still has specific problems with navigating and doing simple math problems in her head.

“I've been going to the same room in this basement for over a year now, and sometimes I still get lost,” she said.

Spurred by her personal experience with the long-term effects of concussions, Snyder about two years ago started an organization called Athlete Brain that aims to promote discussion, awareness and education about sports concussions.

It serves as an online forum to share experiences, engages undergraduates to become passionate about a public health issue and has linked with Health Street, which connects health care and research with underserved populations in North Central Florida.

She said the organization would like to start attending youth athletic tournaments and schools to educate youth athletes, but it would need more funding and resources to do so.

Another area in which UF is reaching out to youth sports organizations is through its graduate athletic training program, which since 1982 has placed certified athletic trainers at high schools in the area. The program serves Alachua, Columbia, Gilchrist and Bradford counties.

Janie Cournoyer, an athletic trainer at Gainesville High School, is part of the program. A graduate student pursuing a doctorate in sports psychology at UF, she began a study last month evaluating how much players at 13 area high schools know about concussions.

She said her experience also has turned up some interesting aspects about coaches. Canadian-born, Cournoyer said she saw a difference between coaches in the United States and in Canada.

She said there seems to be less pressure on student athletes and coaches in Canada because college is less expensive in that country.

“I struggled with making coaches understand that people need to rest,” she said.

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