The stick hit the puck and the puck glided across the ice. As the blades on his skates did the same, Vaughn Kottler, a now junior at UW-Madison but an incoming high school junior at the time, scurried around the hockey rink at tryouts. Little did he know what was about to hit him.
He was so fixated on the puck and his stick, doing his best to make the team, that he didn’t notice the other player and the side of the rink so close to him.
Crash! His body—and head—hit the boards.
The drive home, Kottler said, made him uneasy. He described it as the feeling one gets when one awakes from a deep sleep too soon and one’s body is just not ready.
His next few days were dotted with headaches, and looking at screens and reading were among some of the most difficult tasks.
Concussions, however, do not discriminate. A non-athlete can sustain a concussion from simply hitting their head, or even shoulder, against any surface too hard, transmitting the force of impact to their brain. No concussion symptom should go ignored.
A new study, launching this October out of the UW-Madison School of Nursing and School of Medicine and Public Health, hopes to gain new insights into the aftermath of a concussion in high school athletes, but the knowledge gained can be applied to student athletes of all ages.
Dr. Traci Snedden, a post-doctoral fellow at the UW-Madison School of Nursing and co-investigator of the study, is currently part of a collaborative team that assesses NCAA athletes in a national study focusing on concussion symptom patterns. Snedden, however, hopes to gain more insights on concussions in adolescents, particularly on how they affect academic performances.
“Most [of the previous studies] are more concerned with returning them to their sport … less attention has been placed on when are they are optimally ready to return to school,” Snedden said. “And when they do return to school, they look fine, they have no crutches, they have no cast … faculty and teachers assume that they are fine but underneath that ... many of the studies report that they are struggling with their academics in a number of ways.”
The study, which focuses on Madison-area high school athletes, will send surveys electronically to students who have sustained concussions. It will also ask their parents or caregivers for their insights.
The surveys will take place over a four-week time period, from the time of injury. Snedden is curious as to how academic struggles vary from the first week post-concussion to the third or fourth and why that is. Surveys will be distributed on a rolling basis throughout the next few months, and she hopes results will be published this spring.
Little is known about what occurs in the brain after a concussion, Snedden explained. So far, animal models are the only way for scientists to study a brain immediately after experiencing a concussion. From these models, they have learned that a concussion is a complex biochemical response, causing a supply and demand issue. The brain requires more energy, which isn’t met because of changes at the cellular level.
More is known about concussion symptoms. According to Snedden, many patients report an overwhelming feeling of fogginess, much like Kottler’s. There are four categories of concussion symptoms, each of which, Snedden said, will cause a struggle in daily life. These are physical, such as headaches and nausea; cognitive, including difficulty thinking; emotional/behavioral and sleep-related.
Additionally, Snedden said previous studies have reported that student athletes, post-concussion, reported difficulties in the classroom, inspiring the study which seeks to learn more.
Snedden explained these difficulties may range from worsened symptoms after shifting one’s view from notebook to teacher, reading, staring at screens or physically being able to stay awake for an entire school day due to overwhelming fatigue. Headaches associated with concussions may also impede a student’s ability to function normally in the classroom. Kottler was no different.
“Math was hard because you have a class that requires you to immediately think,” Kottler recalled.
Snedden recommends taking care of the concussion with physical and cognitive rest as one way to help the brain heal. However, Snedden emphasized that each concussion is unique, so each treatment regime will be different for each individual and a fine balance of limitations and activity is required. When an injured individual does not allow proper healing of their concussion, according to Snedden, the effects may be damaging in the short-term as well as long-term. However, much of these effects are still unknown.
“We know that those who do not report their concussion immediately actually have a longer recovery period,” Snedden said. “The brain itself isn’t able to heal … They continue to force their brain to be overworked.”
Less is known about the long-term effects of a concussion, but according to Snedden, multiple concussions in a short period of time may lead to a cumulative effect that may be detrimental in the long-term.
“When we talk about high school-age, or even college-age kids, this is a very fragile time of their lives where they’re making plans for the future. So having cognitive issues during this time could affect them across their future life,” Snedden said.
Snedden and the other researchers will also be conducting a similar study with college-age students. Distributed within the next few weeks to all undergraduate UW-Madison students electronically via their Wiscmail accounts, the survey will be inquiring about their experiences with concussions and other injuries while students at UW-Madison.