Concussion concerns overstated, professor says

Charles Kowalec/Daily
Neurologist Jeffrey S. Kutcher, Associate Professor of Neurology and the Director of the NeuroSport program, discusses head injuries, concussions, and post-concussion syndrome during the Myths and Realities of Youth Sport Head Injuries lecture held at Hatcher Graduate Library Monday. Buy this photo

By Ian Dillingham, Daily News Editor
Published December 8, 2014

When sophomore quarterback Shane Morris was pulled out of the Wolverines’ Sept. 27 game against Minnesota, media attention was immediately drawn to his “probable, mild” concussion and the people responsible for the care of players on the sidelines.

Monday evening, Associate Neurology Prof. Jeffrey Kutcher delivered a presentation refuting commonly held misconceptions about concussions and head injuries that he feels have been widely circulated by the media in recent years. The presentation, titled “Myths and Realities of Youth Sport Head Injuries,” was held in the Hatcher Library before an audience of about 30 students, faculty and members of the general public.

Public outcry regarding concussion policies in college athletics has swelled in recent years following reports of suspected long-term physical dangers and mental detriments caused by concussions. However, scientific research and media reports have often told two different stories in this debate.

Over the course of the hour-long presentation, Kutcher touched on many of the greatest fallacies he has observed in media discussions regarding concussions sustained by both collegiate and professional athletes.

Kutcher drew on his personal experiences working as a team physician for the Michigan football team, as well as director of the Michigan NeuroSport Program, a laboratory unit located in the Central Campus Recreation Building that specializes in concussion research and treatment. Earlier this year, Kutcher served as the head neurologist for Team USA at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and he has worked at various times with the NHL and NBA in developing concussion policies.

While a large portion of Kutcher’s presentation was dedicated to explaining the science behind concussion diagnosis and treatment, he also argued against false reports in the media that can misrepresent current research or inaccurately correlate concussions with a variety of short-term and long-term symptoms.

“This is where medicine is in the conversation,” Kutcher said. “We’re off to the side and pushed to the back.”

One point that Kutcher stressed was the distinction between a concussion, post-concussion syndrome and the chronic effects of playing sports. While media reports often address the three interchangeably or collectively as “concussions,” each has its distinct causes, symptoms and treatment.

Kutcher denied the belief that concussions cause depression and suicide, an idea that has been perpetuated for many years, most recently brought to the forefront following the death of Ohio State lineman Kosta Karageorge, whose body was found in a dumpster near his apartment on Nov. 30, the day after Michigan traveled to Columbus for its annual rivalry game against the Buckeyes.

Authorities believe that the 22-year-old, who had been reported missing since earlier that week, took his own life with a single gunshot wound to the head. The Wednesday before his body was found, he sent a text message to his mother that read, “Sorry if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all fucked up.”

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Franklin County coroner Anahi Ortiz said Karageorge’s autopsy will include brain examinations “because of his history being involved in high-impact sports, because of his history of concussions.”

In contrast, Kutcher said reported instances of depression, dementia and suicide among athletes are tied to the “chronic effects of playing sports on the brain,” and should not be viewed as an outcome of a single concussion.

“(These chronic effects) have nothing to do with concussions really at all, it’s a separate entity altogether,” he said.

Kutcher blamed media coverage for a slew of high-profile player suicides at the professional, collegiate and high school level, citing guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control in 2008 that called on such organizations to realize the potential for improper or inappropriate reporting of one suicide to trigger other suicides in the same community — a phenomenon he believes may be occurring among football players.

Kutcher discussed the misguided understanding of the effects of concussions on long-term brain damage, another major issue currently facing professional athletics.

A recent study of 5,000 retired NFL players reported higher rates of severe brain damage in retired players than in the general population, The New York Times reported in September. Additionally, the report found that symptoms of brain damage generally manifested at younger ages among this group.

In response to the study, the NFL, which has faced criticism for previously denying such claims, agreed to pay out almost $1 billion to former players suffering from Alzheimers, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and a variety of other neurodegenerative disorders.

“That’s clearly not founded in any kind of science at all,” Kutcher said. “It’s really an economically driven, actuarial-driven (public relations) move and not a scientific one.”

The NFL has also faced criticism based on reports of an increased prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in retired professional football players, among other conditions. CTE, which is presumed to be the result of repeated impacts to the head, results in higher observed levels of the naturally occurring protein Tau in the brain.

While studies have shown higher levels of Tau in the brains of former NFL players, Kutcher said the clinical symptoms are so different between patients that it calls into question the role of the protein in the brain.

Event attendee Philip Veliz, an assistant professor at the University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, was interested in learning about the proper age to get children involved in contact sports such as wrestling. He said he realizes that many sports require children to start learning at a young age, but worries that doing so could put them at risk developmentally.

Additionally, Veliz said he appreciated Kutcher’s expertise in concussion research, but disagreed with his assessment of violence in sport. While Kutcher said contact sports are valuable in providing violence-prone individuals a physical outlet to vent their anger, Veliz said he feels this puts such individuals at risk of not being able to cope with violence after they leave the sport.

Similarly to Veliz, Ann Arbor resident Bethany Williston was interested in gathering information about head injuries in youth sports. She said she sometimes worries about her three children, who all play soccer.

“Each season there’s eight games, and each season in at least one of the games I see something where I ask, ‘Is that kid OK?’ ” Williston said.

She said the talk allowed her to gain a better understanding of how to spot a suspected concussion and ensure that players remain safe.

Monday’s presentation was the final installment in a series hosted through the University’s Theme Semester, “Sport and the University.” Prior to Kutcher’s address, English Prof. Anne Curzan, a co-organizer of the Theme Semester, discussed the importance of sport to the University and the many ways in which it interacts with the school’s various departments and disciplines.