February 18, 2009

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Head Games: Post-Concussion Syndrome in the NLL

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Dan Carey can commiserate with his friend Tracey Kelusky. The West Division rivals with the Mammoth and Roughnecks, respectively, have both suffered post-concussion syndrome. Carey is out indefinitely.

© Michael Martin

In the bowels of the Pepsi Center, 30 minutes after an exciting Colorado Mammoth victory, Dan Carey stands alone. The most promising young Mammoth player is relegated to a nice suit and a worried expression.

As Carey points out, he doesn't have an ice pack around his shoulder or a cast on his ankle. There doesn't appear to be anything wrong with him.

But something is seriously wrong, something that affected National Lacrosse League stars Tracey Kelusky and Steve Dietrich last season; something that led to Jay Jalbert's early retirement.

Concussions and the resultant post-concussion syndrome are part of the risk NLL players take every time they step on the floor.

Carey, a Peterborough, Ontario, native, honed his skills at Canisius College and has played summers for the Peterborough Lakers in the Major Series Lacrosse box league and winters for the Mammoth, who took him in the first round, No. 7 overall of the 2005 draft.

A gifted passer and hard-shooting left-hander, Carey made the NLL all-rookie team and was an NLL all-star in 2006 and 2007. Meanwhile, he won the Mann Cup with Peterborough in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

Last season, Carey scored 22 goals with 27 assists in 11 games and played in the 2008 NLL All-Star Game. Then, he got hurt for the first time in his life.

Carey suffered a severe concussion and was plagued by headaches, ending his season in early April. While the Mammoth offense struggled in his absence, he sought headache-free days.

Ironically, his roommate, Kelusky, was also dealing with post-concussion symptoms.

Ever cautious, Carey did not play for the Lakers last summer and did not begin training until October. His new "day job"  kept him busy.

Carey and Mammoth general manager Steve Govett launched Sticks 4 Schools to make lacrosse part of school curriculum. Carey used his teacher education training to design lesson plans for teachers. Along with a few teammates, he visits the same Denver metro area physical education classes for three consecutive days, teaching skills through drills. At the end of the third day, he leaves the lesson plans with the teachers and sticks and balls for the students. pt src= "/admin/tinymce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js" type= "text/javascript"> // --> n>

When Mammoth training camp opened in November, Carey was healthy. In the first three games, he scored three goals and four assists. Then against New York on Jan. 31, he put together his most productive game of the season, three goals and four assists to help end a two-game home losing streak.

During the game, he took a couple hits to the head. He cannot remember who delivered them.

"It didn't knock me out,'' he said. "I didn't feel the effects right away.''

Over the next few days, he was nauseous, but he didn't know if it was the flu or the return of a head injury. As neck pain and headaches became part of his ailments, he feared another post-concussion injury. Mammoth doctors continue tests and have not made a conclusive diagnosis, but Carey is off the floor indefinitely.

"margin-bottom: 12pt;">While he knows he must sit idly by, he yearns to be on the floor with his teammates playing the game he loves.

"I want to play,'' he said. "I know I can't. The guys know that I would be out there if I could.''

But the waiting is the hardest part, as Tom Petty might say.

"It's time that's all it is. You've just got to wait it out,'' said Carey, trying to convince himself as much as a reporter. "My friend, Tracey Kelusky, went through this. I've talked to him. He came back. I look at Casey Powell, he sat out three years. He's doing great now.''

Three weeks, three months, three years - Carey has no idea of the time line. That's one of the frustrations of post-concussion syndrome.

"You can play hurt through a lot of injuries, but you can't play hurt through a concussion,'' said Mammoth coach Bob McMahon. "You can't take any chances.''

The research on concussions has established protocols. The patient takes a baseline neurological exam when he is healthy. After a concussion, they must post the same score to be cleared to play. Moreover, they must be able to exercise without headaches, dizziness and nausea.

When McMahon played, these protocols were not in place.

"In my day, when you said, ‘I got my bell rung,' you probably had a concussion,'' he said. "Any time you see stars, that's a concussion.'

"Your all-stars are getting them now, and that brings the issue to light. It's not just the 23rd guy; it is a high-profile guy like Casey Powell. But the league has really cracked down on hits to the head. I think they are definitely doing what they can to deter it.''

When McMahon calls Carey during the week, he doesn't ask how he's feeling, knowing it gets frustrating to report no progress or even slow progress.

"We just shoot the breeze,'' McMahon said. "It is awfully tough waking up with a headache day after day.''

Roommates are helpful too. Since moving from Toronto to Denver last fall, Carey is splitting rent with teammates Jamie Shewchuk and Nenad Gajic, who is going through his own troubles due to a season-ending ankle injury.

While Carey, 26, is hopeful that there's loads of lacrosse ahead of him, he is a sympathetic figure like all in the lacrosse world who deal with concussions.

The waiting is the hardest part.  

 

 


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