NFL Concussions: Ben Roethlisberger

by Steve Holder on January 9, 2009

Steeler QB’s Concussion Highlights Latest Techniques

Pittsburgh Steeler star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion during the final game of the 2008 regular season, giving the team and fans quite a scare. After being wrapped up by two Cleveland Brown defenders at the end of a second-quarter play, Roethlisberger fell backward slamming his head hard on the turf.

The stadium fell quiet as Roethlisberger lay motionless for all of 10 minutes while trainers cut his helmet apart to remove it. Although he said the blow robbed him of feeling in his arms and he couldn’t feel being transferred to a stretcher when he was moved from the field, subsequent evaluation graded it a “mild” concussion – Roethlisberger’s third in three seasons.

Dr. Joseph Maroon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – leader of the Steelers’ concussion management team – reports that the NFL concussion protocol requires an injured player to pass coordination and memory testing and be symptom-free for 15-minutes, including after physical exertion before being allowed to return to play. Players with anything other than a mild concussion usually don’t pass these tests and are not allowed to return to the game. This is considered typical concussion management protocol for professional athletes.

But not being satisfied with adhering to the minimum standards, Dr. Maroon’s neurosurgical team has developed a computerized test – the ImPACT test – that can provide a detailed evaluation of even the most minor symptoms resulting from a concussion. Steelers players take the test at the beginning of the season for a baseline to compare against in the event anyone is later injured.

After a suspected concussion, the player takes the ImPACT test, usually the next day. The computer test measures attention span, memory, mental processing speed, and reaction time down to 1/100 of a second. If the test results show a worrisome decline in performance, the player is not allowed to practice until the symptoms resolve.

This policy is to help Steelers players avoid not only a debilitating and potentially fatal second injury, but also to help prevent them developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a form of dementia resulting from repeated blows to the head. This is an issue for the team because of the five NFL players determined to have died before age 51 of causes related to this type of accumulated brain damage, three of them were Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Justin Strzelczyk.

As for Roethlisberger, the Steelers had two weeks off before meeting the San Diego chargers in a divisional playoff game, giving the Steelers QB plenty of time to recover.  Several days before the game, Roethlisberger reported he was feeling all back to normal.

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