The consequences of concussions

Concussions used to simply be part of the game of hockey. Players knew what they were getting into when they dropped the gloves, tackled somebody head first or skated with their head down.

But that was before they, or anybody else, knew that concussions can have lifelong effects on the human brain. Concussions have led to the retirements of many players, including Eric Lindros, Nick Kypreos and UOIT’s Craig Fisher.

Fisher, UOIT’s hockey coordinator, knows about the difficulty of concussion recovery first hand.

He was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1988 NHL draft. He played professionally for twelve seasons in the NHL, AHL, IHL and overseas, until his career was ended by serious concussion that he suffered during the 1999-2000 season while playing with the Rochester Americans.

He didn’t suffer many concussions but he describes the hit that ended his career as “one massive series of three or four concussions on the same play within 5-10 seconds.” He said doctors told him to “treat it as a massive car accident and not a sports injury.”

He slept between 18-20 hours a day and barely went outside in the first year of recovery. Even 17 years later he still deals with the effects of his concussion.

Fisher says he doesn’t trust his brain for anything. As soon as he gets information he writes it down and he parks his car in the same place. He has to be ultra-prepared for everything.

Despite not being able to coach, he feels fortunate to work with and contribute to UOIT’s athletic department and help its athletes grow on and off the ice or field.

The long term effects of concussions like his are now widely discussed including Chronic Traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

According to Boston University’s CTE Program, it is most commonly found in athletes after they’ve died. The disease can’t be found while a person is alive. It causes degeneration of brain tissue and a build-up of abnormal protein called tau.

According to the Boston program, there is no set number of traumas required to trigger CTE development.

A concussion is caused when an individual receives a direct or indirect blow to the head that causes the brain to move and make contact with the skull. Concussions aren’t like a broken arm. No recovery timetable can be set. Recovery can range from a few days to life.

Fisher says while the NHL still has “lots of work to do” in terms of player safety, it’s still in the early stages of understanding concussions. In future, he can see suspensions being longer and longer as a deterrent to dangerous hits.

The NHL has work to do financially, too. According to a USA Today report, the NHL, which continues to deny a link between concussions and CTE, hasn’t donated to any of the four centres that are leading research in neurodegenerative diseases caused by concussions.

This despite the head of the program, Ann McKee, studying the brains of five former players, all of whom were found to have CTE. The four centres—Boston University, North Carolina, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Western Ontario—didn’t mention the NHL when asked which sports organizations helped fund their research.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions occur each season in the U.S. and five to 10 per cent of athletes will suffer a concussion in any given sports season.

Michael Radway, a firefighting student at Durham College, has played competitive hockey and baseball for 14 years. He hasn’t suffered any concussions but he believes sports leagues are handling concussions properly.

“It’s definitely come a long way since there used to be. There’s a lot more protocols in hockey, for example, that I know of,” he says.

“Humans have gotten bigger, faster and stronger over the last 20 years but the human brain hasn’t gotten bigger or stronger.”

In a report from McGill University about the silent risks of concussions posed to student and professional athletes, former NHL goalie Ken Dryden said concussions pose the “greatest risk to sports in the future.”

In the same report, another former goalie, Mike Richter says “humans have gotten bigger, faster and stronger over the last 20 years but the human brain hasn’t gotten bigger or stronger.”