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Concussions, Chiropractic and New State Laws

Concussions, Chiropractic and New State Laws

By Robert H. George, D.C.,CCSP, CSCS

On October 23, 2011 San Diego Chargers offensive guard Kris Dielman suffered a concussion during a football game against the New York Jets with 12:31 minutes left to play.  He landed hard on the ground after a wicked collision with a Jet’s linebacker then got up, wobbled and went back to playing the rest of the game taking more hits to the head.

Neither the Charger training staff nor the NFL referees recognized how serious his head injury was as he “waved off” his sideline training staff to return to the huddle.    On the flight home from the game to San Diego, Dielman suffered a “Grand Mal” seizure and will most likely not play for the rest of the season.

Concussion is getting much needed attention in the press especially given the short and long term cognitive loss, early onset dementia, physical disability and even death resulting from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).   Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a chronic degenerative neurologic disease linked to repetitive head trauma and is known as an invisible killer that can make a 35 year old brain look more like 80 years old.

There are 250,000 concussions annually in football alone. The prevalence in high school and college sports is a major concern especially considering how big, fast and strong high school and college athletes have become and how their play emulates the professionals.  This “evolution” of high school athletes is exacting its terrible toll regarding TBI in not only football but soccer, hockey, wrestling, water polo and cheerleading as well!

Three Purdue University professors tracked 21 football players from Lafayette Jefferson High School in Indiana.  For two years they kept a record of every hit in practice and during games.  They found that half of the players had neurophysiologic changes from contact. They also discovered that the repetitive hits the players were receiving had a cumulative effect on the brain and resulted in brain wave changes that mimicked concussion even when the contact did not result in a concussion!

Legislation has been introduced in many states to protect student athletes from the damaging and often devastating effects of head injury.  Special concern is being placed on Return to Play (RTP) guidelines that are designed to avoid second impact syndrome and it’s potential deadly consequences.

In 2009, Washington State introduced the Zachary Lystedt Law requiring any athlete under 18 years of age suspected of having a concussion injury must receive written medical authorization from a licensed physician before return to play.  Other states are following suit and beginning  January 2012,  California will be included with states that have a law requiring the written authorization for return to play for children under 18 years old.  Doctors of Chiropractic will be included in this law as qualified healthcare providers.

What is concussion?  It can be defined as “A complex pathophysiological process affecting the brain, induced by traumatic biomechanical forces.”  Or,  “An immediate and transient loss of neuronal function secondary to trauma”.

Signs and symptoms include but are not limited to thinking deficits, lack of sustained attention, amnesia, confused mental status, dazed look/vacant stare, a slurred or incoherent speech, vomiting, nausea, emotional liability, slow motor or verbal response, memory deficits, poor coordination, dizziness, headache, restlessness, nervous weakness, exhaustion and irritability.

For many chiropractic doctors it is more likely to see an athlete in your office after injury occurs.  Recognizing Post Concussion Signs and Symptoms (PC SS) that can occur days or weeks after initial injury is crucial.  These signs and symptoms include but are not limited to a persistent low-grade headache, lightheadedness, poor attention and concentration, memory dysfunction, easily fatigued, irritability and low frustration tolerance, intolerance of bright lights and difficulty focusing vision, intolerance of loud noises, tinnitus, anxiety and or depressed mood, and sleep disturbances.

The brain heals slowly and if a patient or athlete presents to you with even minor head trauma the first thing to recognize is that there is no “minor” head trauma.   The million dollar question to ask your patient is “Have you ever hurt your head before?  Asking them if they have had a concussion before is not effective because they may not know what a concussion is.  Second impact syndrome is defined as even a minor head injury to an athlete recovering from a previous concussion, mild to severe, and can lead to brain swelling or even death.  Jake Snakenberg, a Denver based freshman football player, died in 2004 because of second impact syndrome from a hit he took just one week before the second hit that killed him.

One of the most common ways to categorize concussion is the ACSM/Cantu Guidelines developed by neurologist Robert Cantu, M.D. These guidelines have three grades.

Grade 1or mild concussion includes no loss of consciousness (LOC) combined with Post Traumatic Amnesia(PTA) lasting less than 30 minutes.    Identifying PTA includes s include digit recall, simple arithmetic, reverse numbering, and word pairs asked immediately and at 1, 3 and 5 minutes.  Orientation to time including who the president is, who their principal is and today’s date are useful questions for evaluation.

Grade 2 or mild concussion includes loss of consciousness (LOC) for less than one minute or PTA that lasts for more than 30 minutes and less than 24 hours.  Post concussion signs and symptoms (PCSS) that last for more than 24 hours and less than 6 days are also considered to be Grade 2.

Grade 3 or severe concussion occurs with more than one minute LOC, PTA for more than 24hours or PCSS for more than 7 days.  Depending on the number of concussions and grade severity, referral for neurologic evaluation and brain imaging will be required.  And, if you are a doctor on the field of play remember, “When in doubt, keep them out!”  Nothing is worth chancing the devastating consequences of head injury.

Treatment of concussion includes cognitive and physical rest until symptoms resolve then a graded program of exertion prior to medical clearance and return to play is required protocol.  Special consideration to treating each person with concussion as an individual is necessary.  The recovery and outcome of concussion depends on a variety of factors that may require a sophisticated treatment and management strategy that includes a step-by-step progression.  Working with a team of other doctors that are proficient in this process will enhance you patient treatment.

Guidelines are used as a standardized reference but observation, clinical skill and common sense are always better than a standardized guideline.  Evaluations and recommendations need to be individualized  and the effect of concussion on kids can be much more damaging than adults since neurophysiologic maturity is not reached until the mid-twenties.

An athlete who doesn’t exhibit many of the same symptoms of PCSS like dizziness, vomiting or memory loss can still have the same changes in brain activity as one with a diagnosed concussion.  Even one of the standard neurologic tests used to measure concussive blows, the ImPact test, doesn’t always measure an athlete’s readiness to return to play because the test can be cheated on.

The use of Doctors of Chiropractic in high school, college, amateur, and professional athletics is growing rapidly.  Whether you are a team chiropractor for the Olympics, a professional football team or your child’s soccer or Pop Warner Team, knowledge of sports injuries and especially evaluation of concussion is vital to your role as a health care provider.

This article is intended to provide some of the basic information needed to understand concussion and its consequences.  It is written as an overview only and further research and study from concussion experts and authorities on TBI should be pursued.

If you evaluate and treat athletes of any age it may be time for an updated refresher on the latest information and research regarding concussion and the laws of the state you practice in.  Check with your state association or local chiropractic college for continuing education on concussion and head injuries.

Information on concussion and head injuries can also be found on an educational website created by Bill Moreau, D.C., DACBSP.  The website is DC Online and the presentation on concussion is excellent.


  1. DC Online , “Concepts in the Assessment and Management of Concussion”, Bill Moreau, D.C., DACBSP, CSCS
  2. LA Weekly News, “Concussions Taking a Terrible Toll on America’s Young Athletes”, Jansen and Garcia-Roberts, Aug. 18, 2011

Robert “Skip” George, D.C., CCSP, CSCS owns La Jolla Sport and Spine where he integrates chiropractic, rehabilitation and sport performance training.  He is a Functional Movement Screen Instructor and can be reached at