The brain in your bucket

 Update: Crosby is reported to be angry at the league for not having suspended Steckel.  Yet he still asserts that the team managed his injury properly.  Feel free to suffer no such foolishness gladly. Angry Crosby Likely to Miss All-Star Game

Since hockey’s most successful player (this season, so far) has suffered a concussion, suddenly a great deal of attention is being paid to this type of injury.  Yet we all know that some players, particularly fourth-liners, enforcers, “physical” grinders and hitters, suffer massive hits that cause hidden–but very real–damage.  Even more frightening is an expert’s recent claim that young people in minor hockey suffer just as many concussions as NHLers.

Sidney Crosby’s much discussed brush with the brain-scrambling monster has unleashed a great deal of debate on the medical aspects of its lingering, treacherous consequences, but has also revealed how nonchalant and clueless the management of such injuries can be.  Just imagine: the league’s premier marquee player suffers a dangerous blindside hit to the head in the league’s foremost high-profile, hyped-up, HBO-documentary-worthy game, the “Winter Classic.” Crosby is visibly hurt, shaken and stirred for all of 6.6 million viewers to see.

Yet, to many people, the fact that he is wearing a helmet throughout, and that he has not lost consciousness following the hit (he skates off the ice, doubled over) seems reassuring: it’s probably not a concussion.  Right?

Not so fast.  When I interviewed Montreal neurologist Helene Masson on the subject of concussions, she was unsparingly clear about several things that most hockey fans, hockey parents, and incredibly, team managers and decision-makers seem to brush aside.

First off, the fact that all our young hockey players are compelled to wear helmets at all times at our neighbourhood rinks can be falsely reassuring.  Dr Masson explains it thus:  Imagine that the brain is a hard-boiled egg in a jam jar.  It moves around and bumps against the sides of the jar.  Each time the brain gets shaken and pushed against its encasing skull, trauma can occur.  In fact, any violent movement, twist or sudden motion of the brain inside its protective dome can result in injury.  If you encase the jam jar in a hard plastic shell, and shake it violently to and fro, you’ll still feel the egg collide with the sides of the jar.

As for the fact that an athlete remains conscious following the hit, again, experts warn that while certain grading systems state loss of consciousness as a necessary indicator in assessing brain trauma, many systems, including the American Academy of Neurology guidelines, do not.

What is most frightening about Crosby’s admittedly “mild” brain injury is that the team has been remarkably dishonest and foolish in managing their best asset’s precious health.  Indeed, Crosby was sent forth to play out the rest of the “Winter Classic,” and also played the following game against Tampa Bay, at which point, according to the official line, Crosby supposedly suffered a concussion (possibly when hit by Victor Hedman). 

 In fact, it has been pointed out that the hit delivered initally at the “Winter CLassic” had confused Crosby to such an extent that he seemed unaware, in the final monents of that game, of his goalie’s exit from the net in favour of an extra attacker.  Seconds ticked by before an 6th man jumped on the ice: an unthinkable blunder from this perfectionist captain.  In other words, not only should Crosby never have suited up again, he probably should have been sent off for examination immediately after the Steckel hit that so clearly scrambled his brain.

We have to wonder and truly fear how cavalier people are with the most fragile and least operable part of our bodies, when it comes to our favourite sport.  Brain trauma cannot be diagnosed immediately the way a broken orbital bone or a torn ligament can.  The symptoms are vague, and Crosby himself –apprently covering up quite nicely for the employer who is risking the health of his brain–merely says that he “didn’t feel right” and “felt a little off.”  It’s a shame that he does not–or cannot–point to the fact that a brain injury should strike the fear of a thousand seizures into the hearts of those who suffer them, even “mildly.” 

Sid, your brain cannot be replaced.  Your symptoms, however diffuse and confusing, are real.  You are now more vulnerable to the next head trauma, and the next one and so forth.  You will not be able to make endless withdrawals at the brain-health bank.  The true nature of the cumulative damage you suffer, especially when you come back to the ice much too soon, will only be felt years from now.

Crosby isn’t, by any stretch, the first player whose brain injury has been mismanaged, and who has been needlessly put at risk.  Usually, the guys whose brains are sacrificed aren’t franchise players, but just toiling minions who aren’t considered Mensa material anyway.  And some players have seemed to bounce back from repeated brain trauma with a cartoonish ease: JR and his comical yet scary, brain-addled behaviour comes to mind.

But there’s really nothing funny, nothing “mild” about an injury that affects the brain.  We *know* that when you are hit hard enough to forget where you are and what you should be doing, when you feel “not right” as a result of your brain being shaken inside its bucket, something permanent will have changed for you.  Helene Masson and other experts admit that the extent of a brain injury always remains, to some extent, mysterious, even to those who look deep inside your cortex.

If only Sid had used this moment as an opportunity to educate hockey fans, players, parents and team personnel about brain trauma, this “winter Classic” could have been a turning point.  He is unable to, and has chosen to minimize his injury, and to repeat his team’s irresponsible, inaccurate and dishonest stance. That is more than a brain cramp, it’s an outrage.

1 Comment

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One response to “The brain in your bucket

  1. I don’t think blaming Syd is the way to go – you were right on the money when you said that “he is unable to”. The trainer, team doc and coach have a lot to answer for though and the fact that the league is conveniently turning a blind eye to this is criminal (possibly literally so?). A million people knew instantly what had happened to him yet they sent him back out… disgraceful.

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