By AJ Barbosa
His team was deep into a tense, tied match when Dylan Aul instinctively did what any present-minded soccer player does with a ball approaching and a defender on their hip – he leaped up, lunged the upper-third of his body to his left and fought for the header.
Well, that’s what he’s been told.
Aul, a KU freshman and Lawrence Free-State alumnus, didn’t make contact with the ball. Instead, the corners of both players’ foreheads collided, leaving them in a crumpled heap on the pitch below. Aul was out cold – he doesn’t remember whether or not his defender was, too – and was taken to the hospital upon regaining consciousness.
After running tests, doctors diagnosed Aul with a concussion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical professionals treat approximately 135,000 children with sports-related brain injuries each year, including concussions.
Though losing consciousness isn’t rare by any means, it doesn’t always happen when someone sustains a concussion. They may stay awake and continue to play, though disoriented with a throbbing headache. As the hours roll on and their parents’ concern grows, they’re taken to get checked out. If the injury happened on a Thursday or Friday night, Dr. Sean Cupp usually sees them Saturday morning.
Cupp has worked for nine years as a sports medicine physician at OrthoKansas, an orthopedics practice three blocks south of Lawrence Memorial Hospital. 17 years ago, OrthoKansas began opening its doors on Saturday mornings to screen young athletes with injuries in a free clinic.
“Originally, it was geared towards high school football players because they play on Fridays and might have sustained an injury that wasn’t bad enough for the emergency room,” Cupp said. “If they wouldn’t know whether or not they were hurt badly, they’d be able to come in and get checked out.”
As years went by, OrthoKansas’ physicians began to see athletes from a wider variety of sports come in with a wider variety of injuries. Still, Cupp says that concussions are one of the most common injuries he sees.
Though sometimes don’t appear to be as debilitating as a broken bone or torn muscle, Cupp says repeated concussions have severe negative repercussions. That’s why he takes them so seriously.
“No one goes back the same day after they’ve been diagnosed with a concussion,” Cupp said. “They need full mental and physical rest until their symptoms resolve, and most of the time, that can take up to 10-14 days for younger athletes.”
The first few days after being diagnosed are often the most painful for athletes. Aul doesn’t remember many details from when he actually sustained his concussion, but without batting an eye, he recalls struggling through class his first two days back.
“I kept getting really bad headaches and migraines,” he said. “I had a lot trouble focusing in school and things, but it eventually started to get better.”
Aul’s coaches at Free State heeded the severity of his injury and kept him off the field for two weeks. Once cleared to play, he noticed an uncanny change in his on-field mentality – especially when preparing for headers during corner kicks.
“Whenever we’d get a corner, I’d get kind of worried about it,” he said. “I was still aggressive, but it’s hard not to be nervous after you just went through that whole concussion situation.”
No matter how much Aul erred on the side of caution after returning, he’d still be at risk of sustaining another concussion every time he’d step on a field. Cupp says that’s the nature of sports – the only way to eliminate the risk is to not play. It’s a tough reality, but Cupp doesn’t believe he’s keeping athletes from playing the sports they love.
“As a sports medicine physician, my job isn’t to disqualify a kid,” Cupp said. “It’s to qualify a kid to play safely without any long-term problems.”
Though there are times when Cupp isn’t able to qualify athletes to continue their sports careers, he insists that it’s for the best and there’s a bigger picture.
“As we continue to progress from advancements with concussions, I hope we create an environment for the individual where they can continue to be productive in life,” he said. “Whether that means they go back to playing that season or if they unfortunately never play again.”
Dr. Sean Cupp of OrthoKansas also offered his opinion on new concussion regulations in the NFL and NCAA. For more, listen below.
AJ Barbosa: After talking about head injuries in soccer, Dr. Sean Cupp of OrthoKansas gave his thoughts on concussion regulations in the NFL and NCAA.
Dr. Sean Cupp: The NFL has fortunately stepped up and acknowledged what we’re doing in the international sports community with concussions. Unfortunately for them, it’s been a litigious reason — they’re being sued by the Players Association. And also, an unfortunate matter was the previous head medical director for the NFL was more concerned about his own prestige than actually taking care of the players and he has been replaced. There’s trickle down from the NFL to the college and high school level, and right now, the NCAA has not stepped up like the NFL has; the NCAA has basically given the power to the individual conferences to decide their concussion protocols. But the high schools, at least here in Kansas, we follow similar rules that are being practiced by the NFL and the international sports community.