Sidney Crosby's injury marked turning point on concussions, expert says

We have a lot more information about concussions now. Even so, some have argued the issue hasn't been given enough attention. But a few recent Canadian stories — and even a Hollywood movie — give one expert hope the tide is finally turning.

New research, movie suggest we're starting to take concussions more seriously

High-impact sports such as football and hockey can lead to concussions, but one doctor says any sport can pose a risk. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

We have a lot more information about concussions now than ever before. Even so, some have argued the issue hasn't been given enough attention.

But a few recent Canadian stories — and even a Hollywood movie — give one expert hope the tide is finally starting to turn.

Connie Lebrun is a sports medicine physician at the Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic in Edmonton and was chief doctor for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team in Sochi.

She said she's noticed a recent shift in the way we think about concussions.

"Now I'll get parents who will come in and say, 'No, we want to take all the time that he needs to get better,'" she said. "And that's quite different from five years ago, where we had a hard time sometimes convincing them to do that."

Some other recent stories seem to back up that perception.

Zach Bratina, 19, who played with the Ontario Hockey League's North Bay Battalion, said he's retiring from hockey after suffering concussion-like symptoms, Radio-Canada reported earlier this month. Bratina was the team's top scorer and reportedly had piqued the interest of several NHL teams.

The University of British Columbia football team is also taking a proactive approach to concussions. More than a dozen players have agreed to wear sensors on their necks to help a study of how the head reacts to every hit. 

Each player wears a sensor behind the ear called an "xPatch." It will allow researchers to study the number, intensity and effects of the hits the players take. The results of that study are expected next year.

Even Hollywood is paying attention to the issue.

The upcoming movie Concussion stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, who helped expose the effects of head trauma on National Football League players.

But Lebrun said the major turning point on attitudes about concussions was Sidney Crosby's experience.

The Pittsburgh Penguins star was blindsided by a hit during the January 2011 Winter Classic. In the following months, he experienced several concussion-like symptoms, which lingered and cost him significant parts of several seasons.

While it was a painful time for Crosby, Lebrun said it made an enormous difference in how we view and treat head injuries.

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby talks about his recovery from a concussion he suffered in January 2011. (Associated Press)
"Before Sidney Crosby got his concussions, sometimes it was a hard sell for us to tell the patients that they had to take time to rest," she said. 

"And that was not just physical rest, but it was also cognitive rest. So video games, computers, Facebook, texting, all that stuff — we have to shut those down in order to let the brain rest. I find that people are more understanding of it."

That's a positive step, but there's a long way to go, Lebrun said.

One of the challenges continues to be helping people understand concussions can happen in any sport, not just high-impact sports such as hockey or football, she said.

For example, she said, two swimmers can knock heads and suffer a head injury.

But greater understanding of concussions has led to even more proactive behaviour beginning at lower levels of organized sport in Canada, she said.

"There's been a lot of changes in the rules around bodychecking for certain ages, for example, in different provinces. And something like that is very good, because that's a developmental level of the athlete."


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.