Until recently, there have been only vague guidelines for what to do if and when an athlete has a concussion. Trainers would tell the player to take it easy, and they would tell the coaches that the player should be okay in a about a week. Those days are gone — especially after the recent news that former Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner’s ALS diagnosis may be related to head trauma.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that it’s Philadelphia Eagles’ head trainer, Rick Burkholder, who has instituted a new system of determining a player’s readiness to return to the field after a head injury. Having worked with the Eagles for 12 years and with the Pittsburgh Steelers for six, Burkholder is no stranger to dealing with concussions.
One of the major problems with concussions is that they go un- or under-reported, mainly because the immediate ramifications of an injury don’t appear to be too serious. It is only in the last few years that the long-term effects are starting to be understood. Players want to play. They don’t want to be sidelined. Football players especially tend to disregard or ignore their health problems in order to continue to play. But the NFL is trying to change the way players look at concussions. Every locker room in the NFL now has a poster which says, “Concussion… Let’s take brain injuries out of play.”
Burkholder has instituted a five-phase program for a player with a concussion. The program was developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Each phase is followed by a 24-hour period in which the player must be symptom-free. If any symptoms appear, the player has to repeat the previous phase. Phase 1 is easy: no-impact exercise in a quiet environment, which usually lasts three to four days. In Phase 2, which usually lasts a day or two, the training intensifies a bit and moves to the team gym. Phase 3 is the most problematic: In this phase, the player does exercises in which he starts moving his head. It can be a while before they can handle that without symptoms. In Phase 4, they’ll start running pass routes and complete more sports-specific training. And in the final phase, contact is added — no tackling, but drills involving players butting up against one another.
While Burkholder admits that much is still unknown about concussions and the proper treatment of them, he feels that this new program helps to ensure that players will not be sent back to the playing field before they are ready. He also feels that attitudes are changing, too — that the players are reporting concussions more and protecting one another.