Head injuries go to House of Commons

Federal MP Glenn Thibeault proposes a bill for concussion prevention that would affect Queen's athletes

Women's soccer midfielder suffered a concussion in August and still experiences headaches.
Women's soccer midfielder suffered a concussion in August and still experiences headaches.

Angela Sullivan took an elbow to the head in August. The midfielder for the women’s soccer team still can’t focus in class, gets headaches while doing readings and can’t handle loud noises.

She doesn’t know when her concussion will heal.

Queen’s Athletics Therapy Services reported 48 concussions last season, an increase from the 28 reported in the 2009-10 season. Officials from the therapy centre say the rise in diagnosed concussions could be attributed to a raise in awareness.

The issue of concussions in amateur sport made it to Parliament Hill on Oct. 4, with a proposed bill calling for an amendment to Canada’s criminal code. The bill would make it illegal for coaches to allow athletes to return to play without meeting post-concussion criteria.

NDP MP Glenn Thibeault proposed Bill C-319 — National Strategy for Serious Injury Reduction in Amateur Sport Act — to the House of Commons earlier this month after meeting with representatives from Canadian Interuniversity Sport.

Thibeault said he also received endorsements from medical groups, health organizations and numerous sporting organizations before proposing the bill.

Bill C-319 calls for the federal government to assemble a conference involving provincial health ministers and members of the athletic, medical and health communities.

These delegates would then implement a strategy to create a national program that would focus on three goals: to collect data on concussions to amateur athletes, to establish training and education guidelines on concussions for amateur coaches and to implement incentivized funding to put these protocols in place.

Thibeault’s bill also calls for the criminal code changes to include coaches who allow concussed athletes to play.

“You can’t eliminate the inherent risk in sport,” Thibeault told the Journal. “What you can do is create educational standards for those involved in all amateur sports ... so everyone makes sure they follow the procedures in place.”

Thibeault said he spoke with neurosurgeons from Toronto Western Hospital and the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation specifically about how concussions can affect students’ academic performances.

Thibeault, MP for Sudbury since 2008, introduced Bill C-319 as a private member’s bill. Private member’s bills are raised by individual MPs, separate from party platforms.

Thibeault said he’s already received support from numerous Conservative MPs and he’s confident Bill C-319 has “the clout necessary to make it as a private member’s bill.

“The way I’ve introduced this is clearly non-partisan,” he said. “I’d be more than happy for the Conservatives to say ‘this is truly important, let’s grab this bill and move forward with it.’”

This season student trainers for Gaels varsity teams carried out baseline testing on all athletes. The testing involves a series of examinations to that develop profiles of each athlete’s normal condition to ensure the therapy centre can prepare for a possible concussion.

The evaluation process follows the Concussion in Sport Group’s Sports Concussion Assessment Tool, created by the world’s leading neurologists.

Queen’s Athletic Therapy co-ordinator Vicky Wiltshire said it’s important to promote concussion education. She said the higher number of reported concussions among Queen’s athletes might have to do with an increased awareness about the dangers of head injuries.

“It’s really hard to tell whether there are more concussions happening or we’re just seeing more because we’re better educated,” she said, adding that coaches don’t say “it’s just a bell-ringer” anymore.

“People are at least starting to open their eyes,” she said.

Athletic Therapy follows the Concussion in Sport Group guidelines to evaluate concussed athletes, concluding daily check-ups until symptoms clear up. If symptoms persist, athletes are referred to sports medicine physicians.

Wiltshire said most athletes recover within a week but some have suffered long-term effects.

“We have a very small number of athletes who, weeks later, can’t sit through a lecture without getting a headache,” she said. “It can be scary and really debilitating ... sometimes you don’t recover from it.”

Sullivan is one of those athletes.

“I’ve been seeing lots of doctors and they say there’s not much they can do for me,” she said. “No one’s been able to tell me anything because it’s so different for every person.”

Sullivan said she supports Bill C-319 because it’s still unclear how to treat concussions and increased research efforts would help.

“Awareness is definitely picking up,” she said. “They’re really dangerous, it’s worth spending time and effort thinking about it.”

Sullivan’s had injuries before — but she said this one’s different because there’s no clear recovery process.

“It’s frustrating because there have been times where I’ve felt really good ... and then it’s almost like I’m taking a step back and I start to feel my symptoms again,” she said. “It’s such a day-to-day injury and it’s irrelevant what I do.”

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