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Wednesday May 25th

UNC held a symposium to discuss neurotraumatic injuries in athletes

<p>Shelby Lake, an English and Biology major from Knightdale, NC, explores the anatomy of the brain in the bio 252 class with Jordan Babwah, a senior exercise and sports science major from Apex, NC in 2012. &nbsp;</p>
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Shelby Lake, an English and Biology major from Knightdale, NC, explores the anatomy of the brain in the bio 252 class with Jordan Babwah, a senior exercise and sports science major from Apex, NC in 2012.  

To bring awareness to neurotraumatic injuries in athletes, notable speakers and medical experts convened at Kenan Memorial Stadium’s Blue Zone for the 5th Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Neurotrauma Symposium from March 8 to 9. 

With neurotraumatic injuries being more common in athletes who play contact sports, the symposium aimed to shed new light on current treatment options for neurotraumatic injuries. 

“The main goal of the symposium is to get the newest evidence and best practices out to the clinicians and researchers who are trying to better care for and understand concussions in athletics in society and in the military,” said Johna Register-Mihalik, an assistant professor in athletic training at UNC. 

The event was sponsored by the Matthew A. Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center, the UNC Department of Exercise and Sports Science and the UNC College of Arts and Sciences

The symposium featured keynote speakers Dr. Allen Sills, the National Football League’s chief medical officer, former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dr. Micky Collins, director and founding member of the UPMC’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program. 

Symptoms of neurotraumatic injuries can be wide-ranging and vary in severity, but the most common are headache, temporary loss of consciousness, confusion, dizziness, slurred speech and vomiting. 

Sills gave the Academic Keynote Address portion of the symposium about the future of football. 

With recent controversies surrounding helmet rules and the number of concussions experienced by NFL players at a six-year high in 2017, the NFL has been facing pressure to better protect its athletes. 

“We made about 47 rules changes over the last 15 years,” Sills said. 

The NFL has also invested millions of dollars into CTE brain injuries. 

“Before I came to the NFL, I had no idea that they put up $235 million against this type of brain injury research over the course of the past five years,” Sills said. 

While neurotraumatic injuries can lead to death, they are not the main cause of death for athletes, Sills said. 

“The leading causes of death are those related to cardiac issues, suicides and drug abuse,” Sills said. 

Data also indicates that preseason concussions are much different than concussions in the regular NFL season. 

“One thing we learned about preseason practice concussions though is it’s very different from game concussions,” Sills said. “Preseason practice concussions are disproportionately affecting offensive linemen.” 

The Center for the Study of the American South sponsored the “Racing to the Finish” athlete keynote address portion of the symposium, featuring Earnhardt and Collins. 

“We at the Center for the Study of the American South are so pleased to sponsor this portion of the Matthew Gfeller’s annual symposium,” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, professor and director for the center. 

Earnhardt has dealt with multiple concussions as a result of crashes while driving in NASCAR. 

“I was a race car driver that raced for many, many years,” Earnhardt said. “I had plenty of crashes.” 

Earnhardt said his first couple of experiences with concussions were frightening because he never dealt with them before. 

“I had never experienced this before,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know what was happening to me.” 

Unfortunately, many athletes, especially those in high school, do not visit a medical professional after developing symptoms of a concussion because of a lack of knowledge. 

“It never crossed my mind to go to a doctor,” Earnhardt said. “And so, I waited, and I drove and raced the next weekend.” 

For many athletes, the drive to keep competing is a significant reason for not reaching out to a medical professional for a neurotraumatic injury. 

“You want to push through this and compete, which I completely respect,” Collins said. 

Earnhardt was able to recover from his concussions because of his strong desire to feel better, Collins said. 

“Dale worked his tail off, and Amy pushed the heck out of him,” Collins said. “Every single day, Dale would do his rehab and do all of the things that we do to treat this. We had Dale working out every day. We had him doing vestibular exercise, ocular exercises. We did medication. We had exposures to different busy environments.”

Just last semester, interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and researchers at UNC, in partnership with the Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin, were given a $4.7 million of a $14.7 million grant from the NFL to survey up to 2,500 NFL players. 

Guskiewicz is both a neuroscientist and nationally recognized expert on sports-related concussions.

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