NFL turning its thoughts to a cerebral issue

With concussions growing, study conclusions timely

November 15, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Frank Wycheck's history suggested he could shake off the effects of concussions pretty well. So, after getting knocked unconscious in a preseason game last August, Wycheck dutifully lined up at his customary tight end position for the Tennessee Titans on opening day.

It was a mistake that almost ended his 11-year NFL career.

Wycheck's second concussion in three weeks brought on a myriad of symptoms associated with post-concussion syndrome - severe headaches, dizziness, confusion, nausea - and underscored the violent nature of the game.

By the time he returned to the Titans seven weeks later, Wycheck had visited with the top neurosurgeons in the country, returned to normalcy and reached a comfort level about his precarious position.

"I just think you need to investigate and educate as much as possible before you step back out there," he said this week. "Where a lot of guys make a mistake, they think they can fight through it, and they can't."

As murky as the NFL's past is on concussions, there are clearer days ahead. In 1994, commissioner Paul Tagliabue mandated research into the growing crisis in the league.

After examining a five-year period of head injuries, an NFL committee on mild traumatic brain injury has come up with a number of conclusions.

First and foremost is the observation that helmets must be improved, along with testing procedures, to cut down on the risk and effects of blows to the head. That was the essence of the first report of the committee, published in the October issue of Neurosurgery.

"The concussion committee was hoping to be able to produce some meaningful information that would translate to safer play at all levels," said Dr. Andrew M. Tucker, Ravens physician, committee member and director of primary care sports medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"We're in the process of doing more things and more studies which hopefully will shed more light on the problem. But I think this is a very exciting start."

The committee discovered that the velocities at which impacts are taking place are considerably higher than previously thought, and in the range of 20 mph.

It also learned that the majority of serious impacts are not to the crown of the helmet, as believed, but either to the face mask or the side of the head.

Video analysis of 174 cases during the period showed that 61 percent of the concussions were from helmet-to-helmet hits, a practice banned by the league in 1995.

There already has been a disconcerting number of head injuries this year. In October, Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski saw his season - and probably his career - cut short by a series of concussions.

Post-concussion syndrome claimed another victim this week when the New York Jets placed wide receiver Wayne Chrebet on injured reserve, ending his season.

Quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Chris Miller and Stan Humphries have been forced to retire in recent years because of concussions.

Dr. Elliot J. Pellman, the Jets' team physician and chairman of the committee on concussions, didn't rule out the possibility that Chrebet's career is over. But he told New York reporters he was more concerned that Chrebet would be more predisposed to concussions.

Indeed, whether one concussion makes a person more at risk to additional concussions is a question not yet answered.

Tucker said there are persuasive arguments on both sides of the issue.

"This is my own personal opinion," he said. "We may not necessarily be able to prove one side of the argument or the other. Both may have validity and the real conundrum may lie in the complexity of the human brain and the variability of one brain to the next."

By his own estimation, Wycheck has endured some 10 concussions in his football career, including his time at Maryland. Most, he said, were the result of hits to the side of the head. The one that knocked him out in the preseason came from a knee to the helmet.

"I lost consciousness for about 45 seconds," he said. "That was the worst one I ever had as far as post-concussion symptoms. I was just hurting for a while."

Only with down time and a visit to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was Wycheck convinced he could play again. He has played in two games since returning in Week 8. So far, so good.

"I haven't taken a big-time lick yet, but I'm sticking my head in there," he said. "At this point, I feel good. It's just the confidence factor to go in there and swing away. After a hit, you kind of check yourself out: `Am I OK?'

"I made sure this time I wouldn't go back unless I was 100 percent."

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