Competitive student-athletes forced to give up training after concussions

January 30, 2017 — by Harshini Ramaswamy, Sherrie Shen and Amy Tang

A story featuring multiple sports players who were forced to stop playing due to concussions. 

Then-freshman Daphne Liu sprinted down the soccer field during the last game of a club soccer tournament on a Sunday in March 2015. Just as she was about to get the possession, a defender kicked her calves in the direction she was running, causing her to fall backwards.

Although she felt dizzy, she got up and continued to play as if nothing happened. What made the situation worse, Liu said, was that over the course of the rest of the game, she headed the ball and fell several more times.

But it wasn’t until she got home, and started studying for an upcoming math test that she sensed something was wrong.

“I remember getting headaches and mood swings at my dad,” Liu said. “After I took my math test [two days later], I called my dad telling him how I couldn’t think, and that I probably flunked the test.”

Liu missed the first three weeks of school due to severe headaches, and she struggled to concentrate on assignments, constantly taking breaks after 30-minute periods. After the confirmation of her concussion by her pediatrician, Liu decided to drop Algebra 2 Honors and ended up taking the course over the next summer.

Last July, Liu was once again playing soccer during a match when a dropkick from the goalie contacted with her head, resulting in her second concussion.

With the danger of a cumulative concussion increasing the possibility of permanent neurologic disability by 39 percent, Liu sat out the 2016-17 season, but hopes to play again next season.

“Not being able to play soccer is pretty frustrating and sad,” Liu said. “I really miss playing on the field and being with everyone on the field.”

Senior Anthony Barthell was also a competitive athlete, swimming at De Anza Cupertino Aquatics (DACA) before he got a concussion in sophomore year.

He wasn’t racing when he hit his head, but was actually swimming at his own home, where he attempted a backflip in the pool’s shallow end. After hitting his head hard on the pool floor, he felt dazed and confused.

At the time, he didn’t think much of the incident, but for days to come he would wake to a chronic headache. Little did he know that this incident would change his life.

“Every day I woke up feeling really foggy, and I realized I couldn’t concentrate and focus as much as before,” Barthell said.

Even though the doctors never performed any official tests, Barthell knew from his symptoms that he had a concussion.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of concussions in teens aged 14-19 has risen 200 percent in the last decade. A concussion that is left undetected can cause long-term brain damage and may even prove to be fatal.

Both Liu and Barthell were lucky enough to have had timely medical treatment, as well as supportive family, friends and teachers to help them overcome the injury.

In general, football, girls water polo and girls soccer have the highest incidence of concussion among the six concussions recorded in the 2016-17 school year. Concussions can range in severity, and include side effects such as memory problems, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness and multiple others.

Sports trainer Liz Alves said the hardest part of the injury for high school students is post-concussion syndrome, a disorder that encompasses the various symptoms, such as headaches and dizziness, in the weeks and months that follow the injury.

She said the “career-ending concussions” such as the ones Liu and Barthell have sustained have been known to affect an athlete’s “physical, emotional, personal and academic lives.”

Barthell underwent physical therapy at Stanford, which included basic exercises such as running on a treadmill, doing push-ups, lifting weights of gradually increasing intensity, undergoing acupuncture and undergoing biofeedback, which taught him how to do breathing exercises to alleviate his headaches.

A year and a half after the incident, a chiropractor finally realigned his neck, which he said has relieved many of his headaches and much of pain.

Although Barthell had to give up competitive swimming immediately following his concussion, he has decided to restart the sport as part of the school’s team.

“Swimming was my passion,” Barthell said. “Having to quit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Liu, on the other hand, still has to avoid any contact sport until she has fully recovered, and is only able to exercise off the field.

“My concussion is definitely a setback,” Liu said. “I think that everyone goes through some kind of setback in life and learning how to deal with it is really important. I’ve also learned how important it is to relax and and be happy with the time that I have in high school.”

Liu now referees for the school soccer team, and still attends practices and games to support her teammates.

One of Liu’s old teammates on both her club team and the school team junior Caroline Chen said that Liu “acts like another coach for our school team.” Although Chen misses playing with Liu on the field, Chen sees Liu playing an integral part in her school team’s success.

“She gives us pointers on the sideline during games, helps out during drills and always stays positive,” Chen said. “She helps us keep our fighting spirit, and her desire to still be a part of the team drives us to play our hardest.”

Barthell, too, is focusing on what he can do now that he is fully recovered, and even plans on giving a TED talk in the near future. He wants to present a new protocol to treat concussions in order to prevent others from dealing with the difficulties that he faced having a concussion — losing focus in class, having chronic headaches and being unable to stay in shape.

The protocol emphasizes pain diagnosis and prescribes screenings for misaligned vertebra with corresponding treatment regimens, since the C1 and C2 neck vertebra are often slightly dislodged after a head collision.

The protocol utilizes specific adjustments to restore the position of these neck vertebra. Rather than solely relying on prescribing medications, Barthell believes doctors should consider alternative, non-medicinal remedies to ensure the full recovery of individuals.

During his talk, Barthell will also speak about how undergoing therapy improved his focus. He hopes to offer a genuine path to recovery for people facing long term, post-concussion syndrome.

“No matter how dark the days get,” Barthell said, “I want people to know that there is always a way to recover.”