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“It’s a really, really lonely place to be…”

Up to a third of women, and one in four men, will experience violence at the hands of a partner at some point in their lives. A black eye may be hard to hide, but a traumatic brain injury could remain undetected indefinitely, as Sarah Sinclair reports.

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Paula Walters was strangled by her boyfriend in 2006.

“I remember him putting his hands around my throat and thinking, ‘I’m going to die’.”

For years afterwards she kept forgetting things, struggling to concentrate and losing control of her emotions.

At her lowest point, she even tried to take her own life. What Paula didn’t know, was that her symptoms were not because she was “crazy” or “stupid”.

They were the result of a brain injury sustained in the strangulation.

Paula survived, thanks to a neighbour who found her severely beaten and took her to hospital. But neither she nor the medics thought to consider the possibility of a brain injury at the time.

It wasn’t until an MRI scan after a car crash in 2017 revealed the extent of the problem, that the connection was made.

Even now, Paula battles with the symptoms caused by the damage done that night. “It’s a really, really lonely place to be,” she says.

But Paula is not alone. In the first community- based study of its kind, researchers in Ohio found that 81 per cent of domestic violence survivors reported being hit on the head.

More than 50 per cent were hit so repeatedly that they couldn’t remember exactly how many times.

Meanwhile, 83 per cent said they had been choked or strangled.

Many are likely to have experienced both repetitive head injuries and strangulation, a deadly combination that could lead to memory loss, difficulty understanding, loss of motivation, anxiety and problems with vision and hearing.

The research indicates that high numbers of domestic violence survivors are living with undiagnosed, unrecognised brain injuries.

And no one yet knows what this could mean for them in the long term.

“Although we know it’s very common that domestic violence survivors experience blows to the head, neck and face, we were not expecting to see the numbers that we did,” says Julianna Nemeth, assistant professor of health behaviour and health promotion at Ohio State University, and lead researcher on the study.

“It’s not just that most survivors accessing services have had exposures that can lead to brain injury, but the number of times they reported it.”

While previous research has linked brain injury to domestic violence, this is the first study to gather such detailed information from the field.

Researchers interviewed female survivors not only from shelters but those accessing a wide range of community services.

Like Paula, many in the study had been experiencing lasting physical and mental health problems as a result of their experience, but had never considered that it could be a brain injury.

Instead they were blaming the abuse, and in many cases, themselves.

“People that we’ve talked to struggle with ongoing mental health issues, suicide ideation, substance use and physical health issues, such as concentration and issues with vision, hearing and balance,” says Nemeth.

“Many survivors were ascribing those symptoms to the abuse or trauma, but not recognising that it could be a brain injury, and not because they are crazy, because their abuser has told them that.

“Just putting symptoms in front of people, and providing the information that these symptoms have to do with a brain injury, gave some survivors a sense of relief.”

Dr Eve Valera an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, published one of the first studies examining the prevalence of intimate partner violence (IPV) related to traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2003.

She first became interested in the link when working in a women’s shelter while at university, but at that point there wasn’t a single piece of literature on the subject.

Valera interviewed 99 women, from shelters and the community, and found that around three quarters had sustained at least one mild TBI from their partners, and half had sustained repetitive brain injuries.

The number of brain injuries and severity was also negatively associated with measures of memory, learning, and cognitive flexibility in the women, and these women were much more likely to experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and general distress.

“One in three women will experience at least some physical or sexual IPV after the age of 15, and if you look at the numbers that I have, you’re talking about millions of women walking around with undiagnosed, unrecognised repetitive head injuries,” she says.

“These are our daughters, our mothers, our friends, our colleagues, our partners. Everybody knows somebody who has experienced this, it’s virtually impossible not to – even if they may not tell you.”

Valera is now working on a larger study, partly replicating those which have examined concussions in athletes, in order to explore the potential long-term consequences of these injuries for women, and how they might contribute to ageing and the development of neurodegenerative diseases, as seen
in those suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

She hopes to bridge the gap between the lack of research on the topic compared with that on concussion in men.

“It’s an international public health epidemic,” she says.

“If you think of the numbers, it’s far more than athletes, far more than in the military. We have all these resources and studies on male athletes and there’s nothing like that with respect to women experiencing IPV.

“We’ve not even scratched the surface, but we do know enough to know that this is dangerous and we need to find out exactly how it’s affecting women in the long term.”

Valera has seen women in their 40s and 50s with histories of repetitive head injuries, who are now struggling to remember how to spell certain words, or help their children with their homework.

“It could be that huge swathes of the population worldwide have been negatively affected in their older years because they sustained years of abuse to the head,” she adds.

But while the long-term impact remains uncertain for now, the immediate dangers are far more clear-cut.

“People with concussions can’t process information as well, and the idea that they can navigate a potentially dangerous situation drops significantly if you’re dealing with a concussion on top of everything,” says Valera.

The complexity of their situations also means that someone sustaining a concussion as a result of IPV, is less likely to make a good recovery.

According to Valera, not recognising or addressing the potential brain injury or concussion means they are unlikely to seek immediate medical care or take a break from their daily activities, both of which are vital for making a full recovery.

Other factors such as being under acute stress, injuries elsewhere on the body and sustaining repeated concussions with relative frequency without giving injuries time to heal, are not conducive to optimum recovery.

“If they do go to the ER, it’s likely for a broken bone or blood coming from somewhere.

“There’s a disjoint between what people are learning in sports or military data, where we see most repetitive head injury studies, and what a woman may think is going on with her.”

The symptoms are not being recognised by those who are in a position to help survivors either.

Data suggests that frontline staff anticipate the number of women with a concussion coming into their care as far lower than the number actually is, and many don’t feel comfortable addressing brain injury with their clients.

“We really need to start understanding this better and getting this information out there to women, and all the different stakeholders who interact with these women.

“If you don’t realise they’ve got a brain injury you’re going to see them in a very different light.

“We need to be approaching women that have been in this situation with the idea that they may have sustained a concussion and factor that into how we care for them.”

The Ohio study interviewed 62 staff members from five agencies across the state and, according to researchers, professionals such as advocates, healthcare providers and law enforcement personnel are not considering that the individual they are dealing with could be behaving a certain way because they are suffering from a brain injury.

“Advocates absolutely want to help the survivors that are coming into their services, but we haven’t made the link yet as a service community between the potential for brain injury and the symptoms we’re seeing in front of us,” says Nemeth.

“We assume that the symptoms we see are because of psychological trauma or potentially mental health or other substance use issues.”

In direct response to the study’s findings, the Ohio Domestic Violence Network has developed the CARE (Connect, Acknowledge, Respond and Evaluate) model, an intervention tool which provides free resources to survivors and service providers to help them identify when someone may have a brain injury and how to respond appropriately to get them the care they need.

The next steps involve developing protocols for all services that come into contact with survivors, to ensure that brain injury is always put on the table as a possibility.

“We need to rule out brain injury instead of ruling it in,” adds Nemeth.

Elsewhere in the US, PINK Concussions, the first ever non-profit organisation for women and girls with brain injuries, is also working with women’s shelters to try to increase awareness among frontline staff.

Founder Katherine Price Snedaker (pictured above) says: “The shelters that we’ve spoken to have been overwhelmed, but what we say is that we don’t need you to diagnose brain injury, we just need you to be aware of it in the same way that we ask sports coaches and parents to be aware of brain injuries.

“I don’t think it’s anything that workers aren’t already dealing with. It’s the reason clients aren’t showing up to appointments on time, that they are cranky or irritable, or they don’t have all the details.

“You may see them as non-functioning and irritable people, but if you see them as someone with a brain injury that might allow you more patience and understanding.”

A brain injury could also be the reason that a survivors’ story is inconsistent, or that they may appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

This is something which Valera tries to convey to police officers dealing with domestic disputes.

“How someone looks after they’ve sustained a brain injury is a lot like someone who’s intoxicated.

“They may be dizzy, disorientated, vomiting or seem confused and may not remember.

“Yes, often there are drugs and alcohol involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s the culprit for what you’re seeing there.”

It’s like a lightbulb moment, Valera says, when people realise what is really going on.

But how has something so obvious gone under the radar for so long?

A general lack of understanding of IPV, combined with the stigma that survivors face, means it is often easier for everyone to keep the problem hidden.

“IPV is so stigmatising that individuals don’t want to admit to it,” says Valera. “There’s so much victim-blaming and misogyny involved, that it’s not easy to own it and say ‘that happened to me’.”

Especially as so often when a woman does speak out, she is faced with the question: Why doesn’t she just leave?

Approximately three quarters of intimate partner murders occur while a woman is attempting to leave, or after they have left.

“It’s not a silly belief that a woman may actually be killed for leaving,” says Valera.

And it’s even more difficult to speak up for those women who are further marginalised in society.

“Women are already fighting the stigma of domestic violence and trauma, and brain injury is an invisible illness, so you have invisible people with invisible injuries,” says Price Snedaker.

“And if they are a woman of colour or there’s a language barrier – all these barriers stack up. We have very few women of colour that come forward. That’s a group that we really need to reach out to more.”

IPV is a topic which people not only don’t understand, but don’t want to understand, she says.

“No one likes to think about it and people don’t necessarily think women are worth it.

“People have an impression that it’s just a problem for other people – those in the ghettos, the drug addicts and the poor people – but it absolutely diversifies all socioeconomic classes.”

Paula Walters actually worked with trauma victims in the same hospital where she was treated, yet the true extent of her injuries still went unrecognised.

“As much as I know about trauma, I totally missed the strangulation part of the brain and the effects that it has had on my body,” she says.

“My friends and family have watched me try to end my own life. That all could have been avoided if the right people had had the right knowledge.”

In order to make it part of the public conversation we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, says Valera.

“[Women] are being dragged down the street, thrown out of cars, having refrigerators thrown on them, their head stamped on with work boots, smashed against cement floors, or hit with a baseball bat.

“We need to start talking about IPV as if it’s not this horrible disease or crime. It’s something that is happening to women all over the place.

“We can’t just keep looking the other way or saying it’s their fault.”


Why men injured in domestic violence must be encouraged to speak out too

The studies cited in our domestic violence report are focused entirely on female victims of intimate partner violence.

However, men, of course, may also suffer brain injury at the hands of their partner or a family member at home.

The latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year March 2018, show an estimated two million adults aged 16 to 59 years reported domestic abuse during the period.

Of those, 695,000 were men. The real figure for both genders is thought to be much higher. Stigma, fear of retaliation and lack of trust in the police are among the deterrents to reporting such incidents, say researchers at University of South Wales (USW) who run the Compass programme, which helps men to consider themselves as victims, challenging gender stereotypes.

The US body, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), meanwhile, estimates that one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, compared to one in three women.

This gap widens, however, when the severity of the attacks is measured. While one in seven women have been injured by an intimate partner, this falls to one in 25 among men, NCADV says.

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Insight

Now is the time to embrace better ways of working

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By Merryn Dowson, assistant psychologist and part of the team behind rehab goal-setting platform Goal Manager

A stitch in time saves nine. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The best things take time.

We are all too aware that some of the most important parts of our lives have been crafted, carved and developed over months and years. Consider your education, for example: you may well have been to primary school, secondary school and then sixth form college. Perhaps you went on to do an undergraduate degree.

You may even have taken another leap and completed a Master’s degree or a Doctorate. This took years. You learned, revised, sat exams, sat resits, applied for places, got results, got rejected, got accepted, and made it here.

One thing is certain: compared to all of this expertise, someone who completed a two-hour online course on the same topic does not come close. We know that putting time and effort into something gives us better results than if we tried a quick approach.

We do not always lead by this example though. Despite the knowledge that great results are only achieved through hard work and perseverance, sometimes we decide just not to bother. Often, a room in our home might look cluttered, worn down and unloved and it could be made to look incredible.

The walls could be painted, clutter cleared, carpet cleaned, furniture patched up, curtains updated, but it is so much effort. We see the effort it would take and keep living with it. It does the job. It’s fine.

We heard this a lot when we began to develop our software. Goal Manager was designed from within a clinical neuropsychology service with young people with acquired brain injury, and we recognised how goal setting was becoming an intimidating concept within our service and our colleagues across the field.

To combat this, we developed an online goal-setting platform which streamlines the key processes of goal setting into one system and allows members of multi- disciplinary teams (MDTs) to collaborate on goal data remotely.

Crucially, it was designed to fill a hole. The more daunting goal setting became, the more it was shied away from, and the guidelines for goal setting that had emerged from the literature were falling to the wayside.

While we designed our platform to save time on completing all of the gold-standard processes of goal setting compared to doing them manually, we found that people had often not been completing them at all. It was all too complicated.

As a result, we recognise that adopting a software solution like Goal Manager can come with its own problems to solve. It requires relearning a lot of
what we know about a concept like goal setting, understanding properly how these key processes work and how they can be applied clinically to benefit clients.

It is only then that you can start to think of ways to make it more efficient. To help with this, our users are offered bespoke demonstrations, guided MDTs through meetings to help with the clinical application of the data, and training on assessments and goal attainment.

This takes time. Our users are often throwing out their previous guide and writing a new one. When surveyed, however, every single one who responded said that it was worth it.

This brings us back to where we started: the best things take time; Rome was not built in a day; a stitch in time saves nine. By taking time to develop an understanding of goal setting and being able to apply it to a software solution, users experience all of the benefits of best-practice goal setting outlined in the literature both for their clients and for their teams.

Clients are motivated, rehabilitation is meaningful, important areas to address are highlighted, MDTs are focussed, clinical practice is evidenced – the list continues. None of this would have been possible without the initial investment of time.

While simple enough to read, this is no doubt overwhelming to apply to your service or practice and, with this in mind, there are some key points to remember. The most significant is that there is no better time than now.

The world is slowly opening its eyes, sitting up in bed and having a good stretch after the darkness of the Covid-19 lockdown. It is not yet certain if we are going back to snooze or if we are leaping out of bed afresh.

What we do know, however, is that we are heading into a brand new day. Even for those of us who continued in practice throughout the pandemic, services have been slightly paused in one way or another, whether that be refraining from home visits or having fewer people in the office.

We are all very aware that we are heading into the “new normal” rather than our old ways. Use this time to bring new and innovative ways of working into your practice. You might completely change your filing system, consider how you approach your waiting lists, or change how you approach MDT meetings.

Whatever you have been wanting to do for you and your service for so long, now is that time.

Perhaps you decide that you are going to welcome change but not all at once. That works too! For users of Goal Manager, we often suggest that starting with one or two clients might feel more manageable than a whole caseload.

This can help get to grips with the new concepts and ways of working without feeling like everything is completely disrupted. This applies elsewhere too. If you are wary of integrating a system into your whole service, start with one corner of it, evaluate, take what you have learned and then look to apply it more widely.

Finally, remember that all time taken to improve and grow impacts more than just what you set out to do. When people lose weight, they rarely conclude
by saying they just lost weight: they often enthuse about how they feel more energised or move easier or feel more positive or experience less anxiety.

This applies to any time you invest in developing your clinical practice or your service.

While time spent learning how to use Goal Manager and establishing it within a caseload is designed to improve goal setting, that investment also leads to improved assessment processes, more effective meetings, improved digital literacy, increased patient involvement and so much more.

The potential is enormous. To motivate you to start the process, look at what you want to achieve and how that might trigger other improvements.

While the world is still trying to drag its head off the pillow to open up the lockdown curtains, look to invest in addressing those needs you have always been aware of but never felt like you could justify the time.

Walk around your “house” and look into each room: is this the best it can be or could I give it a lick of paint?

Is now the time to bring meaningful solutions into my practice? Maybe grab a tester pot and try a new shade on the walls. Sign up for a free trial. Plan to grow and improve. Start building Rome.

To invest in improving your goal setting, visit www.goalmanager.co.uk to register for a live demonstration, sign up for a free trial or request a bespoke tour through the platform and its features.

 

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Researchers unlock key prognostic tool for brain injured patients

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In 1974, leading neuroscientist Graham Teasdale co-created the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) while at the Institute of Neurological Sciences in Glasgow. This scale has since been used to assess coma and impaired consciousness in patients who have had a brain injury.

The scale is used to describe variations in a patient’s eye, motor, and verbal responses. Each feature is assigned numerical scores depending on the quality of the response, and total scores range from three, which is a deep coma, to 15, which is full consciousness.

The GCS is used in clinics all around the world by physicians, nurses, and emergency medical technicians; and is also applied more widely in other, more complex systems that are used in assessing acute brain damage.

However, all three features of the GCS can’t always be determined in patients. Most commonly, the verbal response can’t be tested, as it’s not possible to determine this response in patients with severe brain injury who are intubated.

When the verbal score cannot be measured, the GCS can still be used in routine assessment and communication about a patient’s condition.

“The GCS should be reported in its component parts, so there is still useful information in the motor and eye components, and the verbal score can simply be reported as not testable,” Paul Brenan, senior clinical lecturer in neurosurgery at the University of Edinburgh says.

“The missing verbal score is problematic, though ,when determining the GCS sum score (eyes + verbal + motor). The sum score is used in clinical prognostic tools, such as the GCS -pupils score, so until now, missing verbal data has prevented clinicians from using these tools.”

But now, Teasdale and Brennan, along with Gordon Murray at the University of Edinburgh, have created a tool to use to assess impaired consciousness when the verbal component of the GCS is missing.

The researchers first examined a database of GCS assessments, and found that the verbal component of GCS was missing in 12,000 patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI), which made up 11 per cent of GCS assessments. These verbal scores were most often missing in patients with low eye and motor scores.

Using GCS data recorded in a database of 54,000 patients, the researchers calculated the distribution of verbal scores for each combination of eye score and motor score. They then combined GCS eye and motor scores into EM scores, and determined the distribution of verbal scores for each EM score. Based on this, they identified a verbal score that clinicians could impute for every EM score.

“Without the verbal component of the GCS, the GCS sum score (eyes + Verbal + motor) cannot be determined, so we developed this imputation tool to enable clinicians to benefit from these prognostic tools for decision making in patients with the most severe brain injuries, where the verbal score is not testable,”  Brennan says.

To test these imputed verbal scores, the researchers substituted imputed verbal scores for actual verbal scores within the framework of prognostic charts, which the authors had previously developed.

These charts take into account the total GCS score, pupil response, age of the patient, and findings of abnormalities. The charts provide predictions about patient outcomes, and are designed to help clinicians make decisions and communicate across teams.

The authors outline in their paper, ‘A practical method for dealing with missing Glasgow Coma Scale verbal component scores,’ published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, that they found that the information gleaned from imputing verbal scores according to each EM score was similar to the variations between precise eye and motor scores, and from full information on verbal, eye, and motor responses.

Imputing verbal scores doesn’t add new information, but allows clinicians to use prediction and prognostic models by filling in verbal data needed for those systems to work.

“We have developed several tools related to the GCS that enhance its ease of use and clinical application, including the GCS Aid, the GCS-pupils score and the GCS pupils Age CT prognostic charts,” Brennan tells NR Times.

“These have been designed to address specific needs. For example, the GCS Aid was developed to support training in assessment of the GCS and to enhance reproducibility of assessment. The GCS pupils score and prognostic charts provide a simple but robust prognostic tool that can be used in the clinic.”

“Prognostic scores are helpful for clinicians to get a reliable prediction of patient outcome, to inform clinical decision-making and to support communication with a patient’s family.

“We know from previous research that clinicians can tend to predict overly pessimistic outcomes for patients, particularly those with severe brain injuries, so these prediction models are designed to prevent that. With our imputation tool, the sum score can be determined and prognostic models used in real-time in the clinic.”

The researchers believe that being able to add verbal scores will help clinicians quickly determine the severity of acute brain injury and estimate patient outcomes.

“We know from the enquires we get and from the number of downloads of materials from our website, that these are very popular and are having a positive impact on clinical care around the world.

“We are confident this missing verbal score imputation tool will be just as positively received,” Brennan says.

 

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Insight

Update:concussion in sport

A run through the latest developments in concussion in sport research and protocols.

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A study published in the May 27 in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, looked at a biomarker called neurofilament light chain, a nerve protein that can be detected in the blood when nerve cells are injured or die.

Levels of the protein in the blood were measured and it was found that those with three or more concussions had an average blood levels of neurofilament light 33 per cent higher than those who had never had a concussion.

“The main finding in the study is that people with multiple concussions have more of these proteins in their blood, even years after the last injury,” said study author Kimbra L. Kenney, M.D of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

“Additionally, these proteins may help predict who will experience more severe symptoms such as PTSD and depression. That’s exciting because we may be able to intervene earlier to help lessen the overall effects of concussions over time.”

Following on from our article on the game changing tests into concussion in children it has been found that concussions sustained by high school athletes continues to increase.

Injury data collected from 100 high schools for sports including football, volleyball and wrestling found that, between the academic years 2015 and 2017, the average amount of concussions annually increased 1.012-fold compared to the previous four academic years.

Approximately 300,000 teens suffer concussions or mild traumatic brain injuries each year while playing high school sports.

Wellington Hsu, M.D, professor of orthopedics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine said: “It’s understandable to think that with increased awareness among practitioners who diagnose concussions, the incidence would naturally rise; however because we’ve studied and reported on concussions for a number of years now, I feel that enough time has passed and I would have expected to see the numbers start to level out.

“What we found was that the overall average proportion of concussions reported annually in all sports increased significantly, as did the overall rate of concussions.”

The data also revealed that in gender-matched sports, girls seemingly sustain concussions at a higher rate than boys.

The effects of concussion in young people continues to be a key concern, with links between concussion and football, specifically when heading the ball leading to some big changes when it comes to training guidelines.

Coaches have been advised to update their rules connected to heading the ball in training, with no heading at all in the foundation phase for primary school children and a “graduated approach” to introduce heading training at under-12 to under-16 level. This guidance is expected to be issued across the continent later this year.

These new guidelines were recommended following a FIELD study, joint-funded by the English FA and the Professional Footballers’ Association, published in October last year, finding that professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease than members of the general population of the same age.

The study did not identify a cause for this increased risk, but repeated heading of a ball and other head injuries have been identified as possible factors.

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Limiting unnecessary heading in children’s football is a practical step that minimises possible risks, ensuring that football remains as safe as possible in all forms.

“As such, measures to reduce exposure to unnecessary head impacts and risk of head injury in sport are a logical step. I would, however, like to see these proposals introduced as mandatory, rather than voluntary as present, and a similar approach to reduce heading burden adopted in the wider game of football, not just in youth football.”

A similar stance, that also includes restrictions during matches, has been in place in the US since 2015 after a number of coaches and parents took legal action against the US Soccer Federation.

There is clearly a need to educate coaches and athletes about the concussion recovery process while equipping physicians with quick diagnostic tools.

A partnership between Neurotechnology and brain health analytics player SyncThink and concussion education technology specialist TeachAids aims to offer the latest concussion education combined with mobile, objective measurement technology.

EYE-SYNC, which allows a clinician to use analysis to decipher between brain systems to determine whether a patient may be performing poorly or impaired, will create a brain health education and evaluation system based on the implementation of CrashCourse, an interactive educational module that teaches athletes, parents and coaches about concussions.

This implementation will be available to all SyncThink partners which include top athletic organisations and clinical partners providing medical care and education for over 10,000 high school and college athletes.

This implementation could make tracking those who receive concussion education easier while complying with sport governing bodies educational requirements.

SyncThink founder and medical advisor to TeachAids, Jamshid Ghajar said: “Using the SyncThink platform to feature the CrashCourse educational technology for athletes and coaches is brilliant.

“Now clinicians can use the Eye-Sync tests and metrics alongside CrashCourse’s latest evidence-based information on concussion.”

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