Posted by: mdegeorge | April 3, 2011

Weekly Diagnosis: April 3

Opening Day, the Final Four…it’s been one of the more hectic weeks the sports schedule has to offer. Through it all, there have been a few stories to highlight, including a league on the right side of concussion legislation, some scary post-concussion syndrome, and a brutal week on the ice.

Justin Morneau is returning from a concussion in a league that's ahead of the curve in head injury mediation. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons).

Stepping up to the plate for concussions

In Justin Morneau, Major League Baseball may have found its ideal concussion prevention poster boy (a dubious distinction, I know). Morneau’s injury is the result of a freak accident, thereby debunking the popular argument in baseball circles that concussion legislation is unnecessary since so many head injuries arise from the unpreventable. The native of New Westminster, British Columbia comes from a contact-sports culture currently wrestling with a severe epidemic of head injuries and is immersed in a baseball town that’s also hockey-mad enough to appreciate that concern.

Morneau, who missed the final three months of last season after getting a knee to the head trying to break up a double play, was able to make the Twins opening day roster and is 1-10 with a walk and an RBI through Sunday’s game. His return to the game comes under a new battery of rules going into effect at the start of the 2011 season.

The new guidelines, which appear to have garnered unanimity from the Players’ Association as well as the league, include mandatory baseline testing for players and umpires, standardized procedures for the evaluation of all head injuries, and the requirement of medical clearance before players return to action.

Most innovatively, the rules also institute a seven-day disabled list that takes away the roster-crunching incentives for team to rush players back. By being able to call up a replacement for half the time previously allotted, teams don’t have to decide between hurrying a concussed player whose return date is uncertain back into the lineup to justify his spot on the active roster and having a healthy player remain inactive a week too long because of a quicker-than-expected recovery. The 7-day D.L. also automatically transfers to the 15-day D.L. if the problem persists.

The MLB edicts are a good first step. The league is recognizing the presence of previous injuries (which likely played a role in the severity of Morneau’s symptoms) through baseline testing and providing safe solutions for injured players that also is amenable to teams by relieving roster pressure.

Plenty of reason to forget

Marc Savard has laced up his skates for all of 66 games the last two seasons. All that rest hasn’t halted the deterioration of his neurological health, as a source close to the Boston center told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun this week that Savard is experiencing “real” memory problems of which he is “quite worried”.

Savard is on long-term injured reserve as of early February thanks to a second concussion in under a year sustained Jan. 22. His first concussion came courtesy of the infamous hit by Matt Cooke March 7, 2010, which kept him out the remainder of the season, though he did return to play a limited role in the Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. He missed the first two months of 2010-11 with a recurrence of the post-concussion syndrome and was a shadow of his former playmaking self in the 25 games he did play, registering just two goals and ten points.

Savard’s symptoms, which bear a striking resemblance to those of fellow concussed Bruin Patrice Bergeron, highlight just how much concussions vary from person to person. The trajectory of Savard’s symptoms included a temporary abatement of symptoms which then reoccurred in the summer of 2010 and included severe depression and possibly reduced cognitive abilities. The memory loss he’s currently coping with is beyond the headaches, fatigue and nausea we think of under the blanket label of post-concussion syndrome.

The rinks run red

The NHL even at its best isn’t what you’d call a dainty league. But it seems the combination of tired skaters at the end of a long season and ramped up intensity as the playoffs approach provides a fertile breeding ground for brutal injuries. Consider these recent examples:

  • Vancouver Canucks forward Manny Malholtra underwent another surgery for a puck that struck him in the face March 16. The bloody injury, which has brought a resurgence of our old friend the visor debate (the veteran Malholtra is one of the minority not to wear a visor, a hold-out in the Craig MacTavish ilk), has required two surgeries to date, the latest Thursday to save vision in his left eye, and will shelve Malholtra for the rest of the season.
  • Shawn Thornton endured a scary moment when he got into a close shave, literally, courtesy of the back of Fernando Pisani’s skate (video here). The Bruins forward required 40 stitches to close a curvy gash in his forehead that could have been devastating were it a few inches over. Thornton has yet to return to the ice as he’s still awaiting medical clearance for the surgeon’s handiwork, but he’s at least good humored about the injury’s effects on his potential post-hockey modeling career.
  • Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman also earned a trip to the hospital thanks to a leg injury that has developed into a “gruesome” hematoma requiring surgery to drain fluid. The injury, called “grotesque” by Washington forward Mike Knuble, has Wideman out indefinitely. Much like Thornton, Wideman is finding the lighter side of things, texting pictures to teammates much to their revulsion.

Article of the Week: The death of Shane Dronnet

It’s a testament to the sorry state of head injuries in the game of football that each time a deceased player who has met some psychotically-induced and tragic end is discovered to have suffered some severe neurological problems, it’s headline-worthy. This week, those headlines came from Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN, who told the story of former Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons lineman Shane Dronnet. If you were unable to catch the video, you can check the accompanying take-out by CNN’s Stephanie Smith. The deterioration in Dronnet’s mental state, from an affable jokester and omni-present father to a violent, paranoid and ultimately suicidal sufferer of mental illness is a textbook case of the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has found in an post-mortem examination of Dronnet’s brain. Dronnet’s widow, Chris, seems an ideal spokesperson for greater awareness of this debilitating condition and projects a real desire in the piece to have others learn from the pain she and her family has had to endure.

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