Recently a group of Gillette rehabilitation therapists gathered at Southdale Center for an advanced screening of ‘Concussion,’ the much-anticipated holiday blockbuster starring Will Smith. The movie, which debuts to the public December 25, chronicles the real-life story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu and his research into debilitating brain damage sustained by some NFL players.
While the movie focuses on brain injuries in professional football, speech therapist Erin Ingvalson and physical therapist Jennie Nelson—both of whom work with children and teens following sports-related concussions—found parallels and important messages for patients and parents.
Awareness is Key. “A key part of Dr. Omalu’s mission was finding out the truth about the neurological deterioration seen in some NFL athletes,” says Nelson. “But equally important was raising public awareness and giving these athletes the proper warning.” Nelson stresses that, in the case of teen athletes, the goal isn’t to instill fear. Rather, it’s to make them aware of potential risks inherent in contact sports. “We want to help them do what they love, but do it safely,” adds Ingvalson.
A Full Recovery is More Than Physical. Helping athletes realize the importance of a full recovery—and what “a full recovery” really means—is similarly essential. Physical therapy addresses return-to-play readiness. But occupational and/or speech therapy may be necessary, as well. “Being an athlete involves balance, strategy, and decision-making at the same time as physical exertion,” says Nelson. “If an athlete isn’t fully recovered in these functions, they may be at greater risk for a second injury.” It’s likely, for example, that many of the professionals featured in ‘Concussion’ sustained years of repeat injury without adequate recovery time between hits, as the gravity of concussions wasn’t widely understood.
Brain Injuries Are Invisible. Though the former NFL players featured in ‘Concussion’ appeared fine physically, they had profound neurological problems. Though certainly not to the degree seen in the movie, children may seem outwardly normal post-concussion. But parents should still watch for concerning symptoms. “Some children and teens have trouble with memory, processing and recall after a concussion,” explains Ingvalson. “Others experience behavioral problems.” All of these issues can result in long-term academic or social problems if unaddressed.
Getting Kids Back to their “Best Selves”
Thanks in part to greater public awareness of concussions—both through media coverage and in films like ‘Concussion,’— Nelson and Ingvalson say families, communities and even lawmakers are realizing serious effects of sports concussions. In Minnesota, for example, athletes are legally mandated to discontinue play if they demonstrate symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion. With this mindset shift comes promising developments: research advancements and improved access to needed care. “At Gillette, we have specialized resources and an entire team to help guide kids through the process of recovery,” says Nelson. “We help these athletes get back to their best selves.”
Editor’s note: Learn more about concussions here. Pictured at bottom right is the Gillette therapies group attending ‘Concussion.’