Local doctors take concussion research beyond traditional sports, include wheelchair athletes

WTMJ Online Milwaukee

January 12, 2022

Athletes who play full contact sports know that concussions are always a serious risk. That’s why there’s so much research done on the injury. But, that research isn’t always so helpful to athletes in wheelchairs. Doctors at the Zablocki VA Hospital’s Spinal Cord Injury Center are working to change that.

“It makes me feel good inside that if something were to happen to me, the research out there will help,” said Le’ Toi Adams, a wheelchair athlete and army veteran who is a known champion among the para-athlete community.

She has won dozens of medals competing while using a wheelchair because of her disability.

“When you play wheelchair basketball you fall and you tip over,” she said. “I play Wheelchair football and they hit, they go on the ground, they throw each other around and no concussions yet, so I think that’s a good thing.”

This army veteran isn’t afraid of a fall and she loves the sportsmanship she experiences while playing sports. Luckily, she has also never been seriously injured. But the fact that the risk is there is why Dr. Kenneth Lee, who oversees the spinal cord injury unit at the VA hospital, and his resident Dr. Michael Harper, decided to focus research on concussions – specifically in wheelchair athletes.

“We want to afford the same opportunity for wheelchair athletes as an able bodied athlete when it comes to sports related concussion,” said Dr. Lee.

When an able-bodied athlete is hurt, a series of tests can be done to determine the extent of the injury. The search is there and it is effective. But, many don’t realize that this hasn’t been true for athletes in wheelchairs.

After calling upon 22 experts over the course of two years, these researchers have published a book, called “Concussion Management for Wheelchair Athletes.”

“When it comes to adaptive sports, many of these athletes have a baseline medical condition – a brain injury, stroke, a spinal cord injury – so a lot of the baseline testing that able bodied concussion do – our guys are already positive and it’s part of their medical condition, so you can’t use the same type of evaluation or test that you would on able bodied person because they’d all become positive,” said Dr. Lee.

Le’ Toi says the research will bring forth confidence in athletes who want to play the sports that she loves.

“I think for the future athletes, in paralympics and things like that, having this research is definitely going to take their game to the next level, if that makes sense, because they’ll feel secure in the research that’s going on with concussions,” Adams said. “50 or 40 years ago, nobody was wondering or even caring about adaptive sports, people in wheel chairs, so I definitely love the research.”

It’s an effort to bring better health care to athletes who are as equally competitive and driven to become champions as their able-bodied peers.

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