Concussions are a big topic today, especially in the professional sports world. The problem is that this subject is full of debate, leaving athletes unsure of how to handle their own injuries. Thanks to one of our partners, Axon Sports, Eastbay got the opportunity to talk with Dr. James Moriarity, Head Team Physician at the University of Notre Dame and a Sports Medicine Consultant. He’s been working with collegiate athletes for over twenty-five years and he knows what it means to take your sport seriously. So on behalf of our Eastbay athletes, we had some questions for Dr. Moriarity:

Dr. James Moriarity

Dr. James Moriarity

What concussion symptoms, both seen and unseen, should athletes look for in themselves or their teammates?

Only a doctor can diagnose a player with a concussion. But you can be looking for symptoms like stumbling, disorientation, a slumped posture or lack of eye contact. If you’re speaking to a teammate whose eyes aren’t making a connection with yours, that can be a sign of head injury.

The severity of an impact is sometimes difficult to see from the sideline. That’s when teammates and coaches, who know the player’s normal responses, should be looking for changes. If a player doesn’t seem receptive or they’re detached from you, this may signal a concussion. Under many state and interscholastic guidelines, your coaching staff has an obligation to remove players from action if they aren’t acting normal or just “don’t seem right.”

After a few red flags, a trained professional looks for three things: thinking ability, emotional changes and physical symptoms. Dr. Moriarity broke these down for us:

Impaired Thinking

  • Amnesia or no recall of events, like what they did earlier in the day.
  • Inability to name points in time, such as the date or day of the week.
  • Failure to list general items, when asked to name 10 fruits, for example.

Emotional Changes

  • Drastic changes in emotion; being either overly- or under-reactive.
  • Being disconnected, seen especially during direct conversation.
  • Difficulty sleeping or feeling overly tired during the day.
  • Difficulty focusing on simple tasks, like watching television or reading.
  • Feelings of depression.

Physical Signs

  • Headaches or aches in the neck.
  • Feelings of fogginess, or blurred/double vision.
  • Inability to organize thoughts.
  • Sensitivity to stimulations like light or sound.
  • Lack of balance or steadiness on the feet.
  • Sluggishness or overly slow movements.

Often times, these changes, especially the emotional differences, are not recognized until the next day. That’s when it becomes more difficult to brush off fatigue or pain as just an effect of a strenuous game.

How does Axon Sports’ baseline testing aid in diagnosis and recovery of those cognitive symptoms?

It can be difficult to diagnose a concussion, especially in cases where a doctor may not see an athlete until a day or two after the injury. Ask Dr. Moriarity and he’ll tell you he has a lot of faith in the cognitive testing system. If a condition is uncertain, testing for a mental change can reveal a lot. He believes these tests are “extremely accurate at revealing changes in cognitive ability.”

A test like the Axon Sports CCAT is also incredibly valuable when assessing an athlete’s readiness to return to his/her sport. Begin your sports season by completing a baseline test online. Those results are stored in your secure account, ready when you need them. If you have a head injury, visit your doctor and share your baseline results. Your doctor may ask you to repeat the test, in order to compare those results with your baseline. This will help in deciding your recovery process.

Under Dr. Moriarity’s supervision, every Notre Dame athlete has an up-to-date baseline test on record. It’s a precautionary measure that keeps these top-tier athletes from returning to play too early and risking more severe consequences.

Some of the effects of concussions are still being debated. What do we know for sure about the short and long-term effects of head injury? What about returning to play too early after a concussion?

According to Dr. Moriarity, “The only thing we know for sure is that we need more information.” Every concussion is unique and individual so it’s often difficult to create overarching guidelines.

Dr. Moriarity told us that by definition, a concussion should be both short-term and reversible. A single concussion does not have to cause any permanent damage. That being said, the length of symptoms is variable. Acute symptoms may resolve in a few hours, while lingering effects can still be felt 5-10 days after injury. But in a world where most things are still unsure, there is one clear point: If a player suffers a concussion, he/she should be removed from play immediately and evaluated.

One of the best ways to protect yourself is to avoid returning to practice or games before you’re ready. This can prolong your symptoms, especially if you exercise within 48 hours of your concussion. There’s no getting around it. Unlike most of these concussion questions, this result is tested and proven. Accelerating your rehab can impair your recovery. But since it is also true that you should avoid no activity at all, a small amount of light exercise is the best option to get you back quickly and safely.

We’ve been hearing more and more about concussions in sports news lately. Is there an actual increase in their frequency or is this interest caused by something else?

Dr. Moriarity was quite certain that there has not been an increase in the number of concussions recently. He believes this attention is partially from our ability to better investigate and diagnose them in this day and age.

To read more of our interview with Dr. Moriarity, including Division I tips for recovery, check out Part 2 coming this week.