Dealing with concussions

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave, March / April 2014

Arlene Wilgosh
Arlene Wilgosh

Ten. That's the minimum number of young people being referred to the Pan Am Clinic each week with concussion symptoms.

Some weeks, as many as 20 kids are referred for treatment. These numbers represent a fairly significant problem, one that has certainly grabbed the attention of parents, especially those with children who are actively engaged in sports like hockey, football or soccer.

And with good reason. Twenty or 30 years ago, concussions weren't considered all that serious. Coaches would often tell a player who got knocked on the head to "shake it off, and get back out there." Not anymore.

Over the last decade or so, we have come to understand that concussions pose very serious health risks. Medically speaking, a concussion is an injury that occurs when the brain bumps up against the wall of the skull. This can cause a bruising of the brain and lead to a disruption in the neural pathways.

In addition to the shorter-term effects, such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness, people who have suffered concussions report being unable to stand bright lights or watch television. Research also suggests that those who suffer repeated concussions may experience memory problems later in life.

People started to take concussions seriously a few years back with the rise in head injuries among professional athletes. But the professional athlete is merely the tip of the iceberg. The fact is thousands of kids play sports too, and, as the referrals to the Pan Am Clinic show, they are just as vulnerable to a head injury as any professional athlete.

Fortunately, the health-care system has been able to respond. As I have noted before in this space, the Winnipeg Health Region's Pan Am Clinic has been out front in terms of raising awareness and identifying ways to improve the diagnosis and treatment of concussions.

In 2012, under the leadership of Pan Am Clinic Chief Executive Officer Dr. Wayne Hildahl, surveys were sent to more than 15,000 amateur hockey players, parents and coaches in a bid to gain more insight into the nature and scope of the concussion problem in this province.

One of the main findings of that survey, according to Dr. Jeff Leiter, Albrechtsen Research Chair at the Pan Am Clinic and Executive Director of the Pan Am Clinic Foundation, was that concussions were more prevalent than previously thought. Another important finding was that many amateur athletes do not know a lot about concussions.

Since then, the Pan Am Clinic has taken steps to provide better care to young people with head injuries, including building relationships with experts in the field here in Winnipeg and elsewhere, with the goal of expanding its capabilities in concussion research, diagnosis and treatment. It took another major step in this direction earlier this month with the announcement that it would establish a concussion program at the MTS Iceplex this fall.

The new program, announced by Premier Greg Selinger during a press conference, will be operated by the Pan Am Clinic and will focus on the diagnosis and treatment of concussions among young people.

This marks the second major announcement concerning care for people with brain injuries in the last seven months. As a story in our last issue of Wave pointed out, Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg unveiled its new Centre for Surgical Innovation last fall. It features two new operating rooms designed to advance treatment and research capabilities in the field of traumatic brain injuries. The $25 million project was made possible with the support of the Health Sciences Centre Foundation as well as the provincial and federal governments.

The Pan Am program will complement the tremendous work being done at HSC by focusing on kids with sports-related concussions. As this story points out, it is headed by Dr. Mike Ellis and will also have an important research component.

Dr. Ellis arrived in Winnipeg from Toronto last summer and has been working at the Pan Am Clinic ever since. In addition to the 10 to 20 new concussion cases he sees every week at Pan Am, he also manages a caseload of about 40 to 50 patients a week who have concussion-like symptoms.

Along with diagnosis, treatment and research, which will include building on the core brain injury research conducted at HSC and supported by the HSC Foundation, the program will raise awareness about the prevalence and dangers of head injuries. For example, the Pan Am team envisions the creation of web-based resources for parents, coaches and teachers.

Of course, a program like this does not happen all by itself. Just as with HSC's new operating rooms, the Pan Am program is also being established through a partnership involving a number of government and non-government groups.

In addition to the $1 million contribution from the province, the clinic has also received support from the Pan Am Clinic Foundation and the Winnipeg Jets True North Foundation. The University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine and the Winnipeg School Division are also partners in the venture.

It is through the efforts of all of these groups working together that we are able to put in place the kinds of resources needed to provide better health care. As a result, we are well-positioned to ensure that people who suffer concussions and other brain injuries will receive the care they require, now and in the future.

Wave: March / April 2014

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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