On the football field, the hockey rink or wrestling mat, an athletes' head can take a beating -- and a University of Michigan neurologist is leading the charge to help doctors who treat the brain better understand those sports injuries.
Jeffrey S. Kutcher, M.D., a sports neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School, was influential in getting the American Academy of Neurology to establish a division of sports neurology. And he recently was tapped to serve as the first chair for that new section.
"We're not taught about taking care of athletes in neurology training," says Kutcher. "Caring for athletes requires a different kind of approach."
Kutcher says that taking care of athletes presents a unique set of challenges, including different patient expectations, unique practice environments, and many additional outside influences.
"When I first found myself on the sidelines of a football game as a team physician, I remember thinking that I might as well have been on Mars for as much as my residency training prepared me for that environment," Kutcher says.
"But now I feel almost comfortable, or at least as comfortable as one can get doing a hyper-focused neurological examination with a marching band directly behind you, fans on top of you (sometimes heckling!), and coaches wondering what's taking so long because you've had your thirty seconds."
Athletes often suffer from the kinds of problems that require a neurologist's expertise: concussions, peripheral nerve injuries, migraine headaches or sleep disorders.
The perspective for an athlete can also be very different from the typical patient that neurologists are trained to treat, Kutcher adds. Athletes are concerned about returning to an exceptionally high level of physical and mental function that they consider normal. They are also looking to get back in the game as quickly as possible.
Kutcher says he'd like to get more neurologists involved with the care of athletes. He serves as consultant to the University of Michigan football team and works regularly with the Eastern Michigan University football team -- often joining the teams on the sidelines at games.
He also works frequently with a variety of sports including soccer, ice hockey, and wrestling and sees athletes from other universities including Notre Dame, Rutgers and Purdue through the Michigan NeuroSport program, which he directs.
Kutcher says the new sports neurology section of the American Academy of Neurology will help raise the awareness among neurologists and spur more interest in sports neurology training at medical schools. He is hoping to update the academy's sports concussion parameters and develop a sports neurology curriculum.
Kutcher says U-M also hopes to establish a sports neurology fellowship in the Medical School next year.
The increased awareness will likely improve neurological care of athletes at all levels of play, Kutcher says. And it will help elevate the status of the field, which will spur more research.
"For a lot of neurologists, when it comes to athletes, some of the finer points are a mystery. We weren't taught about it and our field has not recognized that this population, and the neurological problems they experience, are unique," Kutcher says. "We need to change that, and this is a step in the right direction."