When Pittsburgh Penguin captain Sidney Crosby returned to the ice this week and scored a goal within minutes, hockey lovers everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. After ten-and-a-half months out of the game due to concussion, there was no evidence that "Sid the Kid" was anything less than fully healed. It's a hopeful example for those suffering from head injuries -- but Crosby didn't do it on his own
Concussion has received a lot of attention this year, not just due to Crosby's injury and his very public discussions of it, but also thanks to reports about the potential for athletes like football players to feel the effects long after an injury has been sustained. Even the much-ridiculed Toronto school that recently banned hard balls had concussion as the reason behind its decree.
These injuries that literally shake the brain can result in amnesia, a loss of mental function, a loss of coordination and balance, and confusion. Long-term problems can include headaches, an aversion to light, difficulty with noise, and in the case of repeated injuries, there's a very real potential for depression. They have long been a problem, but it was the incident with Crosby that uncovered what turns out to be a massive gap in the treatment of concussion by the medical community.
"If you have a head injury and go to a neurosurgeon, they don't really deal with concussion," says Dr. Blaine Hoshizaki, Director of the School of Human Kinetics and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa. "If you go to a GP, they're very rudimentary in their practice -- they're basically making sure the patients don't fall asleep."
So Crosby and his team sought out other methodologies, leading him to Dr. Ted Carrick, a Canadian-born chiropractor and professor of neurology based at Life University in Atlanta, Georgia. Carrick uses something called the "GyroStim," essentially a mechanical chair that rotates slowly around in all directions in an attempt to stimulate the vestibular system.
"The vestibular system is a powerful activator of brain function and its stimulation may be associated with an improvement of many functions with a decrease of symptoms including head pain, fogginess, concentration, balance, gait and motor coordination," explained Carrick in an e-mail to the Huffington Post. "Vestibular stimulation in concert with eye exercises and other physical modalities affects central pathways in the brain. The brain is plastic in its function and activation of the brain may result in changes in structure and function."
The Discovery Channel's Daily Planet showcased the GyroStim on a recent episode, and host Dan Riskin -- who is also an avid hockey fan -- was cautiously optimistic about the treatment, even if he did see both sides.
"There isn't a lot of potential harm in spinning someone around," said Riskin. "NFL stars have gone and gotten stem cell treatments that may not work at all -- or they might -- and this seems like it's less potentially dangerous. The danger is that if it gets a lot of attention, people might say, 'if it works for Sidney Crosby, it could work for me.'"
With the lab's three-year waiting list, the concern may not be warranted. But Carrick acknowledges that the whole body rotation is not appropriate for every patient, and gives each potential patient a neurological exam to determine pathology and the functionality of their nervous systems.
"When patients are appropriately examined, all prescriptions of therapy must be made individual specific and any contraindications identified," he added.
For Hoshizaki, looking outside of tried and true practices -- that is, just telling the patient to rest -- is a key finding, but one that the mainstream scientific community needs to take up as well.
"It kept Crosby off the ice, which I think was a good thing. He didn't rush back to playing and he stayed out for, as near as we can tell, enough time to heal," said Hoshizaki. "But the medical field has a real responsibility here. They have to know -- and I think they do -- that concussion is a very serious injury, and it should be treated within the construct of medicine. My feeling is that if they don't have enough training in this area, and they should correct that."
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that the GyroStim was developed by Dr. Carrick. The GyroStim was in fact created by Kevin Maher.