Finding answers about concussions

Posted on Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Artist's sketch of a human head with a brain inside it

A concussion happens every four minutes in Canada. Photo: Silver Blue

By Linda Scales

Sidney Crosby’s hiatus from the NHL due to two blows to the head that caused him to miss 101 games over the 2010–11 and 2011–12 seasons elevated this hockey-loving country’s awareness about concussions. Fast forward to 2017: the seriousness of concussions is becoming better understood and a lot of top-level research, including at the University of Ottawa, is being done to find a treatment.

According to Brain Injury Canada, 160,000 Canadians sustain brain injuries each year. While winter, with its numerous accident-prone activities (such as hockey, downhill skiing and skating), may seem the most likely season to suffer a concussion, in fact, concussions happen at all times and are caused half the time by car accidents and falls.

Today, more than a million Canadians live with the consequences of concussions, which include memory problems, confusion, cognitive and physical fatigue, balance problems, nausea and a multitude of other debilitating symptoms.

Suffice to say, concussions have become a public health issue.

What is a concussion?

It is a mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) caused by a knock to the head or body. When the brain’s jelly-like tissue is violently disturbed inside the bony skull, it can be damaged. Called an “invisible injury,” a concussion often changes the way the brain works. And since every person’s injury is different, there is no specific time period for recovery. About 80 to 90% of people recover within four to six weeks, while for the remainder, the effects may persist for months or years.

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

Being unconscious is just one possible concussion symptom.  Others that may begin immediately, or over a period of hours, days, weeks or months, are confusion, headaches, unsteadiness and ringing in the ears. Brain injuries are not considered life-threatening; however, their effects can be serious, even life altering.

uOttawa seeking answers and solutions

  • Recent research led by Dr. Roger Zemek of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and the uOttawa Brain and Mind Research Institute (uOBMRI) has challenged the accepted practice of extended bedrest for children with concussions. The results suggest that light aerobic activity could accelerate the brain’s recovery.  
  • Professor François Tremblay, a researcher at the Bruyère Research Institute and uOBMRI, discovered that concussions affect the transmission of information between the hemispheres of the brain for many years after the injury. More on Professor Tremblay’s research.
  • Another study by Dr. Zemek introduced a validated clinical prediction score to help health providers and researchers predict the duration of pediatric concussion symptoms.
  • The Concussion Injury Group at uOBMRI, composed of concussion survivors, researchers and others concerned about the challenges faced by everyone suffering with MTBI, is seeking innovative treatments for concussion injuries. The initial goal of this group is to support research on:
    • Eliminating the wait and giving early access to information using an interactive web portal, which would provide immediate and appropriate information to patients, physicians and ER doctors based upon the patient’s symptoms.
    • Refining of algorithms based on patient symptoms and tests, so researchers can help predict which patients will suffer from persistent concussion symptoms.
    • Developing tests to help doctors and their patients know if important brain deficits exist, to help patients resume their activities as quickly as possible.

Concussions are the most common neurological condition affecting all ages. The research by doctors Zemek, Tremblay and others at the uOBMRI will help to support MTBI sufferers and encourage more research on what has become a difficult medical problem — for Sidney Crosby and so many others.

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