Over the past 30 years Pittsburgh, has emerged as one of the country’s top hockey cities.
With three Stanley Cups and superstars such as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin calling Pittsburgh home, the Penguins have fueled the ’Burgh’s hockey boom.
However, Pittsburgh has risen to the top of the list when it comes to brain injuries – specifically concussions. That’s been both a curse and a blessing for the region.
A concussion suffered during the 2011 NHL Winter Classic and its ensuing symptoms kept Crosby off the ice for more than 10 months. However, he was fortunate to play in a city that is home to the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, one of the top such programs in the nation, treating more than 18,000 patients annually.
While concussions and brain injuries are nothing new, Crosby’s injury catapulted it to the regional and national forefront. Other Penguins have missed time with concussions as well, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, James Neal and Malkin.
Penguins General Manager Ray Shero counts himself as one of many who have gained a greater awareness of such injuries, especially after one of his sons suffered a concussion in a youth hockey game.
“I’ve seen both sides – professionally and personally,” Shero said. “I hadn’t gone through that as a parent, before. It’s a difficult injury. When you’re dealing with high school kids, you see how it impacts their daily life, schooling and social life. Sports are just one aspect, and a small aspect at that.
“Through UPMC and Dr. Micky Collins [the director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program], I have learned a lot about this injury over the last year," Shero added. "It’s a manageable injury, but the more you can recognize the signs and diagnose it, the better off your recovery down the road.”
While hockey has raised awareness of such injuries, Shero knows they aren’t hockey or sport-specific.
It’s a difficult injury. When you’re dealing with high school kids, you see how it impacts their daily life, schooling and social life. Sports are just one aspect, and a small aspect at that.
“It doesn’t have to be sports. It could occur in other accidents,” he said. “Whether it’s a headache, nausea or an off-balance feeling, or having trouble studying or focusing – there are all kinds of signs that lead you to believe it’s a head-related injury and you need to have it checked out right away.”
According to the UPMC website, Collins helped Mark Lovell, the Concussion Program’s founding director, to create ImPACT™ (Immediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing), the first computerized assessment tool to evaluate a concussion’s severity and more accurately determine when an injured athlete can safely return to play.
Today, ImPACT is the most widely used and scientifically accepted tool in the United States for comprehensive clinical concussion management.
The Penguins continue to help raise concussion awareness throughout the region. The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and UPMC Sports Medicine team up to offer free neurocognitive baseline testing to youth athletes in western Pennsylvania through the “HEADS UP Pittsburgh” program.
“It’s a tremendous program,” Shero said. “There has become such an awareness of concussions. Still, the educational process needs to continue. Parents, coaches or players – they need to notice what the signs might be so they can alert a coach or parent. The more awareness, the better off we’ll be.”
Taking To The Ice For Concussion Testing
The UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program took the first steps toward analyzing concussion trends among youth hockey players with a study sponsored by hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer.
“The goal of the study was to assess the impact forces to the head and their effects in hockey players, ages 12-17, during games and practices,” said Dr. Anthony Kontos, assistant research director with the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
“There hasn’t been a study yet that has looked at the forces to the head of hockey players at these younger ages.”
An accelerometer was attached to the helmets of a handful of Pittsburgh youth hockey players for the purpose of collecting data for the study. The sensor detects and measures impact levels and transmits them in real-time to a database using Bluetooth technology.
“We recorded data in real time, and we’ve begun looking at the level of forces to the head that were recorded and what the effects of those forces were,” he said.
Kontos and Scott Dakan, research coordinator for the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, have begun looking at the preliminary data.
“Right now, we are focused on the more substantial hits — those above 60g’s,” Kontos said. “On average there is one additional hit above 60g’s in games (4.2 per game) compared to practices (3.2 per practice).”
Along with the head impact data, the players underwent ImPACT concussion testing at both the beginning and end of the season.
“We tested all players at the end of the season regardless of whether they had a concussion to see if there are any effects associated with the hits they took along the way,” Kontos said.
"We are now combining the data from the helmet accelerometers, together with the neurocognitive and symptom data from across the season to see if there were any changes related to the impact forces.”
Sidney Crosby, who has become something of a poster boy for concussion awareness, is happy to see people at all levels of the game becoming more aware of such brain injuries.
“I think the awareness is pretty big and it’s useful to know about it,” said one of the game’s brightest stars. “It’s not something you can really see, you just have to be aware of the symptoms, so the more you know, the better.
“I think everyone is doing a good job just making sure they learn as much as they can about it.”
— Joe Sager
Joe Sager is a freelance writer based out of Pittsburgh.
Photos By Getty Images; TSS Photography; UPMC (2)