WASHINGTON — As a congressional panel launched a review of the dangers of concussions on Monday, some experts gave the lawmakers an unexpected message: Don’t overreact.
It was a surprise counterpoint during a two-hour congressional roundtable discussion, the first in a series that will focus on the latest science on the dangers of traumatic brain injuries and the public anxiety about their long-term implications.
The exchange started with a congressman’s story of his family’s experience with concussions. Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said his daughter had been hit in the head while playing high school baseball, and he said the doctors told her that she shouldn’t play contact sports anymore or the results could be disastrous.
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Dr. David Cifu, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has overseen a major study of military brain injuries, soon interjected.
“The sky is not falling,” he said, adding that people should return to normal activity — if not contact sports — within just a day or two after a concussion. Physical activity, after all, is important to warding off a host of other health problems, he said.
“There isn’t science that supports that people shouldn’t play sports after a concussion,” Cifu continued. “It’s bad for our youth, it’s bad for our professional athletes, it’s bad for everyone involved to spread that belief.”
Pallone followed up. “She was told not to go to school for the next six weeks.”
“It’s wrong,” Cifu repeated. “It’s wrong.”
Michael Collins, who heads the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, backed Cifu’s argument. Both emphasized the need for greater research, though, with Collins focusing particularly on treatments — how they should be timed and at what doses.
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“The pendulum has swung from here to here very rapidly,” he said. “The truth is probably in between somewhere, in terms of the fact it’s worse than what we thought it was, but it’s not as bad as what it’s being made it out to be.”
“The advances we’ve made in treatment are significant,” he added. “I would suggest that it’s never been safer to have a concussion.”
Cifu later said, to emphasize a similar point: “People have been getting concussions for 3.2 million years. We’re not all demented.”
There was, however, a significant new development in how professional football views concussions. ESPN reported that NFL senior vice president for health and safety Jeff Miller’s acknowledgement that football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy were linked — an admission he made under questioning from Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — was the first time that a top NFL official had recognized the connection.
“I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information,” Miller told Schakowsky.
Part of the underlying problem, almost everybody on the panel seemed to agree, is that science doesn’t yet fully understand concussions and other brain injuries and how they affect different people.
Much of the research, so far, has been on young males who play sports or serve in the military. Less is known about how these injuries affect women, or young children, or the elderly, or why a concussion affects one person much differently than another.
“We’ve made enormous strides over the last 20 years that put us in a position to have this discussion today,” said Michael McCrea, a brain injury researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “But at the same time, the topic has been elevated into the public spotlight, such that all the stakeholders — including sports parents — assume we already know the answers to all the critical questions, and they want those answers now.”
As Gerard Gioia, who oversees a concussion program for the Children’s National Health System, put it: “There is the perception … that we know a lot more about this injury than we do,” particularly for younger children.
In his most recent budget request, President Obama asked Congress to approve $5 million for a national surveillance system to track concussions in youth sports overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grant Baldwin, who studies injury prevention at the CDC, said at Monday’s hearing that the agency will soon pilot-test a new household survey “that will surveil all causes of concussion, in all ages.”
“To know what we’re facing, and if our prevention efforts are working, we absolutely need these data,” Baldwin said.