Jennifer Feenstra recalled a time not long ago when 10 percent of concussions were diagnosed.
It’s enough to make you dizzy.
“Concussions weren’t recognized as concussions unless you lost consciousness,” she explained. “We now know 90 percent are without loss of consciousness. That’s huge. We missed 90 percent we’re now aware of because we have the technology.”
Physical therapists Feenstra and Amy Downing, owner of Element Physical Therapy in Missoula, held court for a handful of coaches and media types Wednesday afternoon. The main purpose was to educate on the latest instrument being used to better identify the effects of a concussion.
The star of the seminar was a colorful machine that looks like a miniature funhouse. It’s called the SMART EquiTest system and it pinpoints balance and sensory input into the brain.
Used by NASA and soon to be a part of the University of Montana athletic department, according to Downing, the machine does more than provide data to safely clear an athlete for his or her return to competition following a brain injury. It helps target areas where attention is required, such as vision or balance, enabling a physical therapist to more effectively assist an athlete recovering from a concussion.
“We’re able to return athletes (to 100 percent) a lot sooner because we know what to do and know what we’re treating,” Downing said.
“If you don’t get tested and know where you’re at with balance and all this sensory input to your brain, it’s a shot in the dark. I don’t know what I’m rehabbing. I don’t know what I’m treating. I’d probably send you to a room, tell you to be quiet and don’t do anything, then I might start strengthening you. But I haven’t addressed anything going on with the concussion.”
When an athlete is given an OK to return to action, it doesn’t necessarily mean he/she is capable of maximum effectiveness. Downing used as an example a firsthand account by a colleague whose son was cleared to play football after suffering a concussion.
“Just because his mom owned a certain machine he was tested for dynamic visual acuity,” Downing said. “She told his coach, ‘I can tell you right now he can’t see to his right. Go ahead and play him but don’t throw the ball to his right, he’ll never catch it. He can’t judge it. He can’t see it.’
“They threw it to his left all game and they were fine. The last couple plays they tried the right and he was missing the ball. Now his mom is standing on the bleachers screaming, ‘Call a timeout. I told you throw it to his left!’ Fourth down they threw to his left, he caught it for a touchdown and they won. That’s the technology. We can tell you if people can’t see things. We can apply that to activities.”
A similar scenario played out with a basketball athlete in the Bitterroot Valley. He was having trouble with errant passes until he was tested. It was determined his vision and balance were affected by a head injury.
“We’re not trying to sit here and say you can’t play,” Downing said in urging athletes to get tested. “We’re going to say, ‘You know what? You have some deficits. Let’s target them right away and get them better.’ The more you do these 60-second exercises and incorporate them into your practice schedule, the better off you are.”
One coach who was encouraged by what Downing had to say was Missoula Maulers veteran skipper Marcus Baxter. He’s had ample experience dealing with concussion issues.
“It’s always been more of a wait-and-see game with concussions, that’s how we’ve treated them the last three years,” he said. “There’s been no talk of rehab. It’s more just sit in a quiet room and, ‘Do you feel better today?’”
Downing noted that the NFL has made concussions and their lasting effects a priority in recent years. The odds of developing, for example, Parkinson’s Disease, spike considerably for former players who have suffered multiple concussions.
“The likelihood is so much higher it’s incredible,” she said. “These concussions, that same amount of damage is happening in our young athletes. Fortunately a lot are becoming more aware because the media has been so great in educating them.”