WHITEFISH — Professors, activists and survivors gathered at a conference in Whitefish on Wednesday to share research and experiences with an injury that plagues both athletes and veterans: concussions and traumatic brain injury.
Organized by the University of Montana’s Neural Injury Center (NIC), the conference showcased both the latest research in treating and diagnosing TBI, along with experts in veteran counseling. The third so far for the center, Wednesday’s agenda marked the first time professionals in sports medicine also joined the agenda.
“On top of all the research we do, a big goal of ours is outreach and education. We want to help people better understand TBIs, because there isn’t a lot of information available. This conference was targeted toward veterans, athletes and their families, but we welcome everyone,” said NIC Director Cindi Laukes.
The NIC, approved by the Montana Board of Regents in 2014, emerged as a commitment to supporting the university’s veteran students and has maintained a close partnership with the Veterans Education and Transition Services office. This is in a state with the highest per capita veteran population and consistently ranks the highest in TBI diagnoses.
“We were created to help student veterans succeed, particularly those with neurological injuries,” Laukes said.
According to Laukes, TBI can impact a population already vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, with 12% to 20% of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan returning to the United States having suffered some form of head trauma.
She said veterans are at increased risk from the three overlapping dangers of TBI, PTSD and suicide. “Veterans also tend to tough it out, they’re not really whiners. And that isn’t a good thing when it comes to this,” she said.
Since the NIC opened, it has expanded beyond veterans “by virtue of need” to include student athletes. These athletes have included those in high school, members of the Grizzly football team, and even a former NFL player, Laukes said.
Services provided by the NIC include neurological exams, and cognitive and balance tests, along with physical therapy. The center also has resources for counseling, providing all of its services at no cost or on a sliding scale for student veterans and athletes.
Valerie Moody, the director of athletic training at UM, presented guidelines for student athletes returning to class and competition.
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“As we get more resources and providers involved, there’s more opportunity to take advantage of different specialties to help the athletes be able to return to their sport safely and to help manage their recovery,” she said.
Moody said recovery for a student is “team-based,” a collaboration between the students and their coaches, doctors and professors.
One speaker, a former professional athlete, brought a civilian perspective to the effects of head trauma.
In 2006, Garrett Bussiere took a 95 mph fastball to the head while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although his baseball career ended after his injury, he spent the years after studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of California-Berkeley.
According to Bussiere, it took him two years to make a full recovery from his concussion. During that time, he experienced memory loss and a drop in his test-taking abilities, with doctors telling him to “rest.”
“That was kind of a new beginning for me,” he said at the conference.
Bussiere compiled his years of research, along with a study that he conducted on himself over 10 weeks, into a book published in 2017 that offers solutions to recovering from a concussion.
“There’s been a dramatic culture shift in the past few years when it comes to concussions in sports. It used to been a tough guy mentality of just getting back in the game. Then, like a pendulum, it seemed to sway to the opposite end of the spectrum with almost this hysteria around concussions and CTE,” he said.
“Now, within the past four or five years, we’re in a good place to have a healthy discussion,” he said.