August 9, 2015 Canton, Ohio. As the Pittsburgh Steelers start their 2015-16 season with a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings, Dr Joseph Maroon looks forward to another year as neurosurgical consultant for the team. Following his work with local high school teams in the Pittsburgh area, to help reduce an alarmingly high incidence of spinal cord injuries, Dr. Maroon was asked by the Rooneys to join the Steelers who had recognized the need for a spine and concussion specialist.
“In those days concussions at the professional level were thought of like a pulled muscle or ligament, just rest it for a couple of plays and get back to the game”, relates Dr. Maroon. “At that time I was also advising the Pitt Panthers football team and had been part of several groups who were developing concussion guidelines. The new guides said a player with a concussion should be removed from play and rest for a week or even longer depending on the severity of the concussion. I have told the story many times how, then Steelers head coach, Chuck Noll, took issue with this when I tried to keep his star quarterback from playing following a concussion, ” remembers Dr. Maroon. “Noll was smart and asked me what evidence did the experts have who developed the guidelines to justify staying out was enough time for the brain to heal, or was more or less time required. At the time I didn’t have a good answer since large studies on concussion and return to play were still in their infancy. I turned my friend, Mark Lovell, PhD, who is a neuropsychologist, and together we developed a series of neuropsychological tests to use at baseline, prior to a concussion, then to compare these results after a concussion. Later we called the tests ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) which allows for better concussion management and individualized determinations, and along with a physician evaluation, help determine when return to play is safe.”
Dr Maroon continues his work to better understand and treat concussion as the co-medical director UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program. The Program was the first of its kind when it opened its doors in 2000. It has remained the largest ever since, serving as an international leader in this still-evolving discipline. At the forefront of concussion research, assessment, treatment, rehabilitation, and education for more than a decade, the Concussion Program sees more than 13,000 patients annually, produces more published research than any program that followed, and continues to set the standards of care.
“I’m gratified how far we have come at all levels of sport to help educate, prevent and manage sports related concussion,” states Dr Maroon. “I was the first neurosurgeon to formally consult with a professional sports team back then and now, based on its importance, concussion experts are mandated for every NFL team.” I’m now working to provide what we have learned in the pros to youth sports which generally lack the resources to have full time sideline concussion experts. Soon pediatric neurocognitive testing will be available for youth 5-12 years of age. In addition, a new helmet hit sensor system is being developed to detect the number, location and magnitude of sports related head impacts that stores and transmits information to remote medical personnel. One of the most exciting innovations is the use of telemedicine systems to provide a virtual sideline physician assessment for youth football events anywhere in the country for immediate concussion evaluation and treatment recommendations. The field of concussion medicine is exploding and I’m thankful that I’ve had a chance to help make a difference.”