AURORA -- 1986 Aurora High graduate Dr. Holly Benjamin is participating in a study which could shape treatment of concussions in the future.
A four-sport letter winner at AHS, Benjamin has gone on to specialize in non-surgical sports injuries, including growth plate and muscle injuries, sprains, strains and concussions. She is a professor of orthopaedic surgery, rehabilitation medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
She's now overseeing the U of C's participation in the Concussion Assessment Research and Education Consortium study, a three-year, $30 million study spearheaded by the U.S. Department of the Defense and the NCAA. The University of Chicago is among 30 colleges participating.
"What we're trying to do is look at virtually all the current screening tools that are out there -- eye tracking, balance testing, thorough histories, reaction time, basic mental health screening and [computer-based] neuropsychological testing," said Benjamin.
The goal is to identify the very best diagnostic tools and treatments for individuals with concussions. "At the end of the day, a concussion is a clinical diagnosis," she said. "It takes time to make a diagnosis; we don't have that perfect test for diagnosis."
She said 38,000 athletes and military cadets are enrolled in the three-year study. Now in its third year, Benjamin said there have been about 1,800 concussions that have been reported and are under scrutiny.
Initial tests are done with each to establish a baseline standard and then treatments. Those who experience a concussion are regularly assessed for a minimum of six months after the injury while being treated.
Most concussions do not last that long, added Benjamin. Recoveries lasting three to four weeks are typical.
Undiagnosed concussions are also common and can wreak havoc with a teen's grades. She said a football player once came to her complaining of frequent headaches and plummeting grades.
She said he probably suffered an undiagnosed concussion that wasn't treated. The good news is full recovery occurs in 99 percent of cases, but failure to properly treat concussions slows recovery.
In Illinois, Benjamin said she chaired the Committee for Sports Medicine and Fitness for the State of Illinois, which successfully lobbied to pass a law prohibiting same-day return to action for athletes with head injuries or suspected concussions and mandating training for coaches, teachers, recreation and school officials.
She said the study may not affect education for coaches a great deal because their protocol usually involves advising parents to see a doctor who can properly diagnose and treat concussions.
The biggest benefit to coaches is that the study could raise awareness among parents of the potential dangers of failing to recognize and properly treat concussions, she said.
"We need to empower the coaches and support them," said Benjamin. "I think we have achieved a major accomplishment in the last 10 years with needing people to be more aware. There are still some people who are still not educated."
The publicity over the NFL's attention to the matter has helped raise awareness, but Benjamin said parents need to be aware concussions are not restricted to football.
"I can honestly tell you, because I've done sports medicine for a long time, I've seen a concussion in every sport out there," she said.
For example, athletes have stumbled over hurdles in track, landed badly in the high jump, fallen in cross country. She said she's seen badminton-related concussions and even golf and water skiing, in which a hard, high-speed, face-first crash in water can be jarring.
For many years, she said little was known about the effects and best treatment for concussions.
"We realized that concussions were an important part of sports medicine," she said. "There are more than 300 concussions per year in youths. I became interested because it was something that was important, common and was pretty clear during my training that there was a lot we didn't know."
She said in recent years, head injuries are taken much more seriously than in the past when they were often brushed off.
"It wasn't the way it's talked about now," said Benjamin. "There was a lot of interest in trying to return people to sports quickly after concussion. I think we're now a lot more conservative."
Benjamin attended NEOUCOM in Rootstown, where she completed a six-year medical program, then headed to Chicago in 1994 for a pediatrics residency followed by a sports medicine fellowship. She said she started the sports medicine program at the University of Chicago in 1998.
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