New Jersey Teen Back in Action After Concussion

June 25, 2021

It was a Friday night in early October. Tighe, an 18-year-old football player, was out on a football field with his high school varsity team in the Raritan Valley region of New Jersey when a member of the opposing team collided with Tighe.

The collision knocked him to the ground. He got up, fell down again, but returned to his feet, ready for the next play. Waiting to receive a punt, he had a realization: If he caught the ball, he sensed he’d drop it, and he knew catching the ball would also cause him to fall down again. So, he avoided the ball. His coaches noticed this immediately. Something was wrong with their guy.

They pulled him off the field and did the protocol concussion test on the sidelines. He seemed OK, so he went back out to the field for a few more plays. But when he got back to the sidelines, his coaches saw he was confused about the score and didn’t sound like himself, so they kept him out for the rest of the game.

Concerned, his parents took Tighe to JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute where he had a CT scan to make sure there wasn’t any bleeding in his brain. Nothing showed up on the scan, but knowing there was a possibility of a concussion, they arranged for him to see a brain trauma specialist three days after his collision on the football field.

In her office, Christine Greiss, D.O., director of JFK Johnson’s Concussion Program, spoke with Tighe about how he was feeling and assessed his condition by doing a neurological exam, which included a cognitive test, a balance test and a vision test—standard assessments for concussions.

“Dr. Griess definitely was great at explaining everything, from why she was doing the tests she did, to why I should take certain supplements, to how I should get back into physical activity,” says Tighe. “Any questions I or my parents had were answered.”

Dr. Greiss noticed Tighe had some difficulty tracking moving objects with his eyes and a little bit of delayed attention and working memory. Being the athlete he is, his balance, which was usually spot-on, was borderline. It was clear he had a concussion.

New Thinking for Concussion Treatment

Dr. Greiss’ treatment plan came as a bit of a surprise to Tighe and his parents, who were familiar with “cocooning” therapy for concussion treatment.

Cocooning, or “total rest” therapy, is a protocol of keeping people with concussions in a darkened room with as little cognitive stimulation as possible. The theory of cocooning therapy is that stimulation will harm the recuperating brain, so those with concussions should have no or limited cognitive or physical stimulation while their brain heals. “In reality, that’s not the case,” Dr. Greiss says.

Instead, research shows patients have a stronger and quicker recovery with a graduated return to regular activities. In Tighe’s case, the first phase of treatment included:

  • No football for at least a week
  • Some walking and light jogging
  • Getting out in the sun as much as possible to get vitamin D
  • Screen time and academic activities commenced right away, but on a limited basis
  • Supplements such as magnesium, vitamins D, C and B complex
  • Diet high in protein, including drinking whey protein drinks, to promote brain health and healing

“I slept a huge amount, did the supplements and kept off screens,” Tighe says of his first week of concussion treatment. By the end of the first week, his symptoms of intense headaches, mild amnesia, sleeping more than usual and eating less than usual gradually diminished.

Return to Play

He returned to Dr. Greiss’ office where she repeated the assessments she took when she originally saw him and adjusted his treatment plan so that in the second week he was doing physical activities again, such as running, and up to three hours of screen time. A week later, he’d improved so much, she gave him the OK to start lifting weights and return to playing football.

“Upon returning to play, Tighe exhibited no hesitation or fear and competed as wholeheartedly as he ever had with no symptoms whatsoever,” his mother says. “He was excited to return and confident that he felt 100 percent.”

While his final high school football season was cut short because of increasing concern over rising COVID-19 cases, Tighe has received both an athletic and academic scholarship and will continue playing football in college.

With his future health in mind, he is using the advice Dr. Greiss gave him: Doing neck strengthening exercises, which are proven to inhibit concussions, and interval training to enhance reaction timing and continue to take recommended supplements that support brain health.

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