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On how we discuss concussions

September 25, 2011

Driving home from work the other day, I heard something odd in the news briefs before heading to commercial. I was tuned into 98.5, the Sports Hub. It was quick, it was innocuous. But it stopped me in my tracks. It went something like this:

“Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, is recovering from his concussion according to schedule, according to the team. He is expected to play on Sunday.”

“According to schedule?” I asked myself. For well over a year now, all we’ve heard from the legions of NHL media, teams, players and doctors is that recovery from concussions is non-linear, and that there is never a schedule. With respect to the Marc Savard situation, I can’t recall just how many times I heard the words “doctors won’t assign a time-frame for his recovery.” Headaches happen, external stimuli cause pain, working out is uncomfortable suddenly. If there’s anything hockey fans have learned, it’s that concussions, caused by the greater speed of the game in the post-lockout era, are one of the great scourges of the sport. Concussions are traumatic brain injuries, they are grave, they are serious. This isn’t about Michael Vick per se, and how concussions were discussed during the NFL’s lockout given the league’s own cast of former players battling depression, substance abuse and memory problems.

This is just about how we discuss concussions. And for once, I have to applaud hockey for standing by the medical profession and perhaps being more cutting edge than football. Look at this most recent clip on Sidney Crosby. “No timetable.”

Are the sports different enough that they merit such a difference in language? Yes and no. Depends on the position, naturally. The language ought to be universal, because concussions are universal. Sure, the hits the cause concussions differ in severity, in angle, in how recovery is handled–because these are two entirely different sports. Or how many games they play? Eh, no.

Why is this a problem? Because when we talk “timetables” we do a disservice to an injury we truthfully know very little about. And when we talk “on track” we put unnecessary pressure on the athlete, his team, his medical staff. And we’re not talking about concussions in a realistic way.

So, hats off to hockey for getting it right. Maybe this was a bad gaffe for the writers at 98.5, but I think education about concussions is spreading. We’ll get there.

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