Return to play protocols and the physiology of concussion are a veritable “hot topic” in modern athletics today. This is particularly true of elite, contact sports. Indeed, a majority of the clients and healthcare professionals involved with HeadCheck Health are linked to hockey, football, rugby, or lacrosse.
Less rarely and intricately examined, however, are the lifestyle implications a brain injury can have on a student-athlete. In addition to attending lectures, taking exams, and completing assignments at the same pace and barometer of excellence as their fellow students, athletes attend daily weight training sessions, practices, and frequently travel to other cities or provinces for competitions and games. In recent studies, the NCAA has released that the estimated dedication to athletic excellence costs a player an average of 37-52 hours per week. This value does not include schoolwork and (almost exclusively) negates the prospect of being able to sustain additional part-time, paid employment.
Concussion and the prolonged effects of post-concussion syndrome can be extremely challenging and almost always affect life off the court, the field, or outside of the rink. As we know, some of the hallmark symptoms of concussion (and recovery) are: headaches, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, mood changes, anxiety, insomnia, loss of concentration and memory, and noise and light sensitivity. With concussion, seemingly normal tasks like maintaining a sleep schedule and attempting to stay within academic expectations of critical thinking and learning becomes challenging. On top of that comes daily check-ins with team medical professionals.
This week’s interview features an ACAC college hockey player all too familiar with this process. Hunter Mills is a Business Administration student at SAIT and an active member of the men’s hockey team. In his second year with the Trojans, he was sidelined several times due to recurrent concussions and recovery complications. Along with learning the misconceptions surrounding head injury, Hunter has also come to understand the tribulations associated with having to constantly articulate how he is feeling or explain why it is a ‘good’ day or a ‘bad’ day.
His testimonial is a tribute to the complexity of such an injury.
How many concussions have you had?
Hunter: Not really sure, the safe guess would have to be approximately 5 or 6.
What is the most surprising or disconcerting symptom you have experienced?
Hunter: I think getting back to the bench after taking a hard hit and the feeling of it; it is hard to describe. It is almost like you’re in a 3rd person perspective or in a dream. I’ve gone out on the ice again after having this happen and sort of just floated around not really knowing what I should be doing or what is going on in the game. Probably my biggest fear is forgetting something during the day and having the thought that it could be correlated somehow to the injuries I’ve had. I think most of the time I’m just overthinking it, but that is exactly what worries me about concussions, losing my memory or not being able to be “myself”. That is what scares me the most.
The protocols, including baseline testing, ongoing assessment, and the checklist for returning to play can be frustrating for many competitive athletes. Naturally, you are eager to return as quickly as possible. What have your learned most in having to go through this process? Is there anything you wish other athletes or your teammates knew about head injuries?
Hunter: One of the most frustrating or annoying things about having a concussion is having to tell about 5 people everyday how you feel and why. You’re expected to grade yourself on over 20 potential symptoms and feelings you may have on a scale of 0-6. It is difficult because no chart or scale is able to tell you if you’re okay or not. I know if the day is a good day or bad day and I’d rather not have to fill out some checklist to prove this. I’ve filled out hundreds of these SCATs and I understand their purpose but sometimes the process can be draining. Recently, I started seeing a concussion specialist and I found having less people dealing with the whole process improved my day to day and made me feel a lot better about everything. I really appreciate all the medical staff’s assistance and support during the process. It has been hard having to be so honest about how I am feeling.
Throughout their development, athletes have access to lots of new equipment and types of therapy. What do you think has been most helpful to your recovery?
Hunter: I think the biggest contributing factor to helping me with my recovery is the knowledge that everyone now has regarding concussions and head injuries. My coaches and teammates, especially the captain of my team Dean Allison and assistant coach Brett Bartman really helped myself to make the right decisions regarding my injuries. The leadership, compassion and maturity they have provided have been invaluable to my progress and ability to cope with everything. Throughout my junior career, I was pressured not to miss games and my coach often said that “it is all in my head” and a concussion is not a real injury. My experience at SAIT has been the complete opposite. I am encouraged to make the correct decisions to get healthy because people care about each other and a future after hockey. I want to thank Dan Olsen my head coach, the rest of the staff at SAIT, and my teammates because although the new equipment and therapies streamline and articulate the recovery process – the biggest difference for me has been the people around me.
Looking ahead, is there anything you’d love to see in the field of concussion science from an athlete’s perspective? How has brain injury affected your lifestyle, hockey career, and thoughts about the future?
Hunter: Although it can be tedious, finding out exactly what each individual athlete requires for brain recovery is huge. In addition to the protocols and questions, providing a supportive and educational atmosphere is incredibly beneficial. My teammates and family played a huge role for me. Undoubtedly, there are ways to further blend science with the more intangible and relational sides of healing. Having a concussion is unlike any other injury in sports. If it were anything other than my brain – I would have been out there grinding through it with the boys. It is not easy to constantly dissect your state of mind and this shift in my thinking has been the biggest adjustment for my life and future.
BHK – Clinical Exercise Physiology
BSN-PB Student – Nursing (RN)