No room for head games

BGSU researcher studies effects of concussions on student-athletes

By Bob Cunningham 

When a student-athlete suffers a hit to the head on the playing field, a protocol is observed to determine if a concussion has been sustained. How long does it take for that athlete to recover from a concussion? What happens in the classroom and who does he or she turn to for help?

That’s where research by Bowling Green State University’s Dr. Andrea Cripps, School of Human Movement, Sport and Leisure Studies, comes into play. Cripps’ main research concentration is sensory impairment following concussions: how vision, hearing and the somatosensory systems are compromised. In addition, she looks at academic decline following a concussion to investigate whether a student’s GPA regresses. 

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of college students don’t know how to talk to their professors about the challenges they face in the classroom,” said Cripps, a certified athletic trainer who joined BGSU as an assistant professor in August of 2015. “Even just going to class under the fluorescent lights can be a huge detriment to learning for a student who has sustained a concussion.

“College kids don’t understand how much concussions are going to impact them. They might not be able to study, concentrate or even read a book. Sometimes they can’t even hold a conversation without the symptoms being provoked again.”

She aims to determine if visuo-motor processing deficits, which can occur after concussions, can improve through therapy, which may also reduce recovery time.

So far in her research, Cripps said one concussion doesn’t seem to be a problem academically, but subsequent concussions can have a much higher impact on students’ “return to learn,” as the NCAA and the Centers for Disease Control have dubbed it.

Cripps said symptoms of a concussion include headaches, difficulty remembering, difficulty sleeping, sensitivity to noise, nausea and, sometimes, vomiting. 

“Obviously, headaches are probably one of the biggest symptoms,” she said. “A lot of times students feel like they are in a fog.”

Once an athlete has had a concussion, research suggests he or she is four times as likely to sustain a second concussion. From there, an athlete is 10 times as likely to sustain a third concussion, and the susceptibility continues to grow.

“My main goal obviously is to have a better understanding of how to help students in the classroom and what we need to be doing to get information out to teachers and professors so we can assist them in the classroom,” Cripps said. “And then on the other side, understanding the symptoms student-athletes are experiencing and what is causing them.” 

Even though football concussions get a lot of attention in the media, she said women’s ice hockey actually has higher incidence rates. 

“Athletes in all sports can get a concussion, not just contact sports,” Cripps said. “Football numbers are the highest, but the percentage rates of players that sustain concussions are actually highest in hockey.

“You hear about football because they have the most number of athletes playing and participating in football. You’re actually more likely to sustain a concussion playing women’s soccer, rugby, lacrosse or ice hockey.”

Right now, Cripps is focused on college athletes, but she plans to study high school-aged student-athletes in the near future. 

“My plan is to set up preseason testing for the surrounding Wood County schools so athletes can set a baseline standard before they begin participation,” said Cripps, who grew up in Echo Bay, Ontario, playing numerous sports in high school. “Then if they ever get a concussion, I’ll be able to retest them so I can provide the student-athletes and their physicians with a better assessment than they would typically get in an office.”

The evaluations before and after would offer a basis for comparison.

“I would do some balance testing with them, as well as cognitive testing and some visual testing just to get a baseline measure,” she said. “And then if they do get a concussion, I would repeat the measures to see how they are changing.”

Ultimately, Cripps wants to make student-athletes more aware of concussions and what they can do to aid their recovery so they don’t get lost in the classroom.

“Obviously, the media is doing a great job of bringing concussions to the forefront, but at the same time it is a scary situation if you’re not well informed,” she said. “Getting the truth out about concussions is important. If I could change the world, I’d like to make sports safer. That is a big goal.”

Updated: 12/02/2017 12:34AM