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Maine Explores New Ways to Reduce Concussions
01/22/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, as many as 300,000 high school athletes suffer concussions every year. Statistics like that worry those in Maine who treat high school athletes who have been concussed. Tom Porter has more.

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Statistics like these are worrying to Patricia Wentworth (above). "It's almost an epidemic right now," says Wentworth, a chiropractor and certified athletic trainer specializing in concussion treatment and prevention.

Her practice in Eliot focuses on re-habbing area high school athletes who have been concussed, and trying to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Wentworth says her work was inspired by the research of pioneering concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston, showing a connection between the strengthening of certain muscles in the back and neck and concussion prevention.

Wentworth's clinic involves targeting these core muscles that she says most athletic training neglects. "This is called Medex, these are Medex medical machines, this one is specifically for low back," she says.

Concussion 8This device isolates the muscles supporting the lower spine. Strapped into the machine is 16-year-old hockey player Joe Spinney (right). He's been coming here twice a week for the past month and has several more weeks to go - it's a 12-week program.

Spinney leans forward in a sitting position, and then pushes back against heavy resistance as many times as he can, until he can't go any further.

"It's tough, definitely," - much tougher, he says, than he initially expected. "Yeah, I thought they were going to be pretty easy. But after doing five or so reps, they got pretty hard."

Without much of a break, it's time to move onto the neck-strengthening machine - otherwise known as the multi-cervical unit, or MCU. Spinney's head is secured into a cage-like metal frame. And at the prompt of the machine's computerized voice, he nods his head up and down at different angles, all the while encountering resistance.

MACHINE VOICE: "Continue. Flexion 45 degrees left."

After being concussed three times playing hockey, the Traip Academy junior is back on the ice and feels stronger. He hopes his visits to Dr. Wentworth's clinic will make him better able to avoid future concussions.

Joe's mom, Linda Spinney, says she's noticed a difference. "What have I noticed? He's stronger when he skates and plays hockey. He's stronger on his edges, and he's just - a lot more confidence," she says.

"The muscles that we're trying to actually develop are the ones that ride right on the spine," Wentworth says.

She says most athletic training - even at the professional level - neglects these interior muscles, concentrating instead on the more visible exterior or superficial muscles, which do nothing to protect the spine and help prevent concussion. Consequently, she says, many people who appear strong are shown up by this machine.

Patricia Wentworth: "I've probably have half-a-dozen personal trainers on here who do core strengthening for a living, who test below the norm."

Tom Porter: "It's the people you wouldn't expect."

Patricia Wentworth: "No. And wouldn't you think a 22-year-old man should be able to lift more than a 64-year-old man? One would think. No."

Wentworth says this is the only clinic of its kind in New England, and she's hoping to introduce her concussion prevention training methods to high schools across Maine.

John Ryan, the athletic trainer at South Portland High School, welcomes the idea. "There's a lot of research on neck strength and the role that plays in helping to prevent, and possibly reduce the severity of, these types of injuries," Ryan says.

Ryan is part of a concussion work group put together by the Maine Department of Education, tasked with helping Maine's 170 or so public high schools fill a legal requirement to have a concussion management policy in place by the end of this school year. He says he'd like to see Wentworth speak at a future state meeting.

And, on a related note: South Portland High has just become the first school in the region to test out a new piece of concussion-related technology. In a collaboraion with Dr. Wentworth's clinic, the school's hockey players have started wearing so-called Smart Impact Monitors under their helmets.

Developed by Triax Technologies of Connecticut, these are small, unobtrusive sensors worn inside a headband, designed to enable coaches to monitor, in real time, the head impacts endured by athletes.

Learn more about the Maine Concussion Management Initiative.

Learn more from the Maine Department of Education about concussion prevention efforts.

Photos:  Tom Porter


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