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OU athletes share injury data to aid research about concussions

Oklahoma City — You won't find many people still defending the old days of football, when players knocked unconscious were sent back to play as soon as they woke up. But there's not yet a clear consensus about how to handle head injuries.

It's a question the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S. Department of Defense have committed more than $22 million to try to answer, with help from athletes at University of Oklahoma and about 30 other schools who agreed to share their data with researchers in the Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium.

Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at OU, said a broad cross-section of student athletes have decided to share their data. Students who opted into the study go through the same process as those who didn't, with baseline testing on balance, concentration and reaction times, he said. Those who get head injuries also participate in the usual follow-up testing to determine when they get back to their baseline, he said.

While the students participating now won't see any difference in how head injuries are managed, their data could help improve the care future athletes receive, Anderson said.

“It could be a change in our baseline assessment. It could be a change in our management,” he said. “It could change just about every aspect of sports.”

Dr. Thomas McAllister, chair of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine, is leading the study. The first phase of the study followed students for about six months and focused on how long it took to recover from a concussion, he said. It found that harder blows didn't necessarily produce worse symptoms, and students who'd been hit on the head before took longer to recover.

“One of the more surprising things about this work is the variation from person to person,” he said.

The next phase will look at what happens in the first three to four years after a concussion or “repetitive head impacts,” McAllister said. They included hits to the head that weren't diagnosed as concussions to try to capture as much information as possible about what students' brains have absorbed, he said.

“We know that we're not always good at identifying (concussions) or people may hide the symptoms,” he said.

The researchers will compare students in sports where they are likely to hit their heads repeatedly, like football and soccer, with a “limited contact” group in sports like basketball, and third group of those in non-contact sports like swimming or track. It's possible some swimmers will get concussions in accidents, but the groups should be large enough to show patterns, he said.

Inviting all varsity athletes at multiple schools to join will allow for a more complete picture than current data about head injuries, which mostly comes from all-male professional football, provides, McAllister said. So far, they have data about 39,000 students and 3,300 concussions.

“We're going to be able to compare different sports and different sexes to fill in the gap,” he said.

A subgroup of students will undergo MRI scans and blood tests to look for signs of when it's safe to return to play, McAllister said. Team doctors who treat students won't have access to their blood samples or brain scans, because it's not clear yet how to use that information in everyday practice, he said.

Longer-term tests will look for problems with memory and attention and for mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, McAllister said. He hopes the federal government or a foundation will offer funding to continue following the students after they leave college.

“We're trying to get a complete picture of how worried we, as a society, should be,” he said.

Related Photos
<p>Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma </p>

Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma 

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma  " title=" Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma  "><figcaption> Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma  </figcaption></figure>
Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›