Savannah Mellberg entered Scripps College in fall 2014 as a student-athlete on the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s lacrosse team. Mellberg was cautious to protect her head during games and practices; she’d received three concussions in high school and knew the detrimental effects of suffering repeated hits. In late November 2014, Mellberg had her fourth concussion when an opposing player ran into her during a game and caused her to hit her head on the ground.
“That [fourth] one took me a really long time to recover,” Mellberg said. She experienced severe headaches, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, and difficulty concentrating and remembering for over three months following the hit. Mellberg was forced to give up lacrosse, and now helps athletes recuperate from injuries as a CMS student athletic trainer.
Recently, concussions have been identified as one of the most common severe sports injuries for athletes. The CMS Athletics Concussion Management Plan defines a concussion as a change in brain function following a force to the head, which may be accompanied by temporary loss of consciousness. In awake individuals, concussions are associated with neurologic and cognitive dysfunction. Athletes with concussions may experience multiple symptoms and it is crucial they receive proper evaluation and a recovery plan.
A mission of the CMS Sports Medicine team is to assist athletes with concussions in the healing process. Head Athletic Trainer Steve Graves and Assistant Athletic Trainers Raechel Holmes and Craig Harnetiaux work with athletes and run tests to ensure players fully recover before returning to play.
CMS Sports Medicine follows NCAA concussion protocol to ensure that head injuries get careful medical attention. Before engaging in sports, CMS athletes receive thorough education about the injury. Athletes also complete baseline written and motor-skill tests at the beginning of the year to reference if they suffer a head injury.
Thus, athletic trainers play a critical role in evaluating and treating unique concussions. Under NCAA rules, an athlete experiencing symptoms more than fifteen minutes after a blow to the head has endured a concussion. Each concussion is unique. “That’s the thing about concussions: Nothing is ever the same,” says CMS athletic trainer Raechel Holmes. “You can see people get crazy [hits], and then they stand up and have no problems. And then you can see someone walk into a door and have extreme signs.”
Anyone with a concussion can experience a variety of symptoms that affect physical and emotional states, energy levels, and cognitive abilities. Some physical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and light and sound sensitivities. A person may also experience irritability, anxiety, irregular sleeping patterns, fatigue, and difficulty focusing and remembering.
If an athlete receives a hit to the head and experiences concussive symptoms, they must refrain from physical activity the rest of the day. After a CMS athletic trainer assesses the player, the CMS team physician is consulted to create a specialized plan that will help the athlete recover.
In order to re-enter sports activity, student-athletes must receive clearance from the athletic trainers by completing the Return-to-Learn and Return-to-Play protocols. Once a student has been symptom-free for 48 hours, they can slowly begin to engage in physical exercise. For example, the first day includes light aerobics, such as walking, swimming or biking. The intensity of these workouts gradually builds, and the student can join regular practice after six days of asymptomatic training. If the athlete experiences concussive symptoms during the workout, they return to the previous day of training, and cannot move to the next step until they are symptom-free.
With around 475 student-athletes, the CMS Sports Medicine staff treats approximately 20-25 concussion cases annually. According to Holmes, “it really changes year to year, because of the demands of the sport.” Although concussions most commonly occur in football and soccer, they are not limited to these sports. Athletes can experience head injuries from any sport.
Because concussions are such individualized injuries, there is no “one shoe fits all” time-frame or formula for an athlete to recover. Most commonly, “if it’s a mild concussion, [it’s] probably a week to 10 days,” says student-athletic trainer Grace Thieme SC ’18, who has suffered three concussions herself. However, she notes that this approximation is not universal: Those who experience harder hits may require more rest, while others may fully heal after a couple days.
Athletes who have experienced multiple head injuries may experience prolonged symptoms and need a longer recovery. Such was the case for CMS baseball player Austin Schoff CM ’17, who suffered five concussions over a seven-year span. After being hit by a baseball in fall training, Schoff completed extensive eye therapy and worked with several doctors before returning to baseball and the classroom.
“Until I completed eye therapy and could sit through an entire class without feeling exhausted or feeling dizzy, I could not play,” he remembered. It took a year and a half before Schoff felt fully recovered academically.
The methods of recovery depend on the individual’s symptoms. While one may find limiting exposure to loud noises helpful, another might benefit more from reducing screen time. Individuals recovering from concussions must refrain from activities that aggravate their symptoms.
“You’re trying to rest your brain, so you want to remove all stimulus,” says Holmes. Some common ways to reduce stimulus include limiting use of electronics, avoiding bright lights and loud noises, engaging in less strenuous physical activity, and refraining from reading or putting excessive stress on the brain. Holmes' advice is: “If you’re doing something that makes your symptoms worse, you need to stop doing it.”
The student-athlete’s recovery process may be affected by the college atmosphere. After hitting her head while traveling last fall, CMS student athletic trainer Leta Ames SC ’18 said that it was difficult to recover from a concussion while being a full-time student. “It was hard to figure out how to balance being at school, doing work, and needing to recover,” she said.
Student-athletes at rigorous colleges like the Claremont Colleges may find it difficult to let the brain heal without falling behind. But the CMS sports medicine staff encourages students experiencing severe symptoms to communicate with their professors and receive necessary accommodations. In their recoveries, Mellberg, Schoff and Ames experienced positive relationships with their professors, who understood their injury's effects and offered support. By asking for extensions and extra time on tests, students can receive the rest they need to fully heal.
As a student who endured three concussions, I understand the challenges that come with these injuries. But despite their debilitating effects, those who have experienced concussions can find new strength in recovery.
“The concussions made me much tougher,” Schoff said. “I learned a new way to battle through adversity.”
And with a team of diligent, caring athletic trainers, it’s safe to say that CMS athletes and students who experience concussions will be in good hands.