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'Game on' for Penguins' Orpik during concussion

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 11:09 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brooks Orpik plays against the Sharks on Dec. 5, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Brooks Orpik played video games to help heal his brain.

During his “recovery stage” from a concussion — 10 days after he was knocked unconscious by an attack from Boston's Shawn Thornton on Dec. 7 — Orpik was advised by Penguins doctors to “stay active,” and that included playing video games.

“It's definitely a lot different than you heard from stories of guys who were getting (concussion) treatment five years ago,” Orpik said.

Orpik played “Scramble With Friends,” an electronic word jumble, on his cell phone. He also used a wall-hanging designated to retrain his eyes.

None of this was expected. Orpik had heard stories of Penguins captain Sidney Crosby going months without sending a text message or watching television during the earliest stages of his concussion recovery in 2011.

Crosby's symptoms — neck soreness, headaches, light sensitivity — persisted longer than those for Orpik, who was afflicted with neck soreness, headaches and short-term memory loss.

Still, Crosby said he took a big step forward along his recovery in July 2011, when he began treatment with Ted Carrick, a Florida-based chiropractor who specializes in neurological disorders. Carrick emphasizes physical exercises designed to recalibrate the equilibrium of a patient diagnosed with a concussion.

“More of the active type of recovery … the more you can do that without being symptomatic, hopefully the better things get,” Crosby said, adding that the traditional rest-it-out approach to concussion recovery is not easy for a lot of athletes to accept.

“It's difficult. You're used to having goals, working towards something. Then all of a sudden … you're just waiting for your body to heal, and it's hard to be patient when you're going through that.”

Patience in the form of rest and quiet is still most often advised by physicians when a concussion patient is having symptoms, said Dr. Julian Bailes, co-chair of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill.

“In general, we do advise to stay away from video games, texting, TV, and basically anything that can eliminate straining the stimuli,” said Bailes, a neurosurgeon who has worked with the NFL Players Association and is an adviser to the NCAA and Pop Warner Football.

“But we've found there are some people it doesn't bother, and because concussion treatment is individualized there are a growing number of people who think reprogramming the brain is the right way to go, especially if it helps.

“Generally, I think if you can do it and it's helping, you probably should.”

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin did not do much other than “stay on the couch” for four days after his concussion diagnosis in February.

Malkin whiplashed his head and neck while crashing into the end-zone boards at Consol Energy Center. He did not remember the sequence, leading to the concussion diagnosis.

“The doctors said not to use TV, not to use cell phone, no books, (do) not even try (to) walk a lot,” Malkin said. “My concussion was not bad, but (for) four days I (did) nothing.”

Malkin, like Crosby and Orpik, said he started feeling better once resuming some activity — in his case, light exercise on a stationary bicycle. He missed four games because of his first NHL concussion last season.

Orpik missed eight because of his concussion this month.

Crosby's symptoms lingered for 15 months starting three years ago, and he played in only eight games over that stretch.

Some aspects of treatment — notably, Bailes said, the movement toward earlier brain stimulation during recovery — have changed between the experience of Crosby and Orpik.

Change in treatment of concussion has occurred particularly fast over the past decade as the injury — an epidemic at the youth level, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has received increased focus within the medical community, Bailes said. That includes in Western Pennsylvania, where concussion programs for UPMC and Allegheny Health Network have made the region a leader in concussion treatment and education.

The Penguins use UPMC physicians and clinical psychologists for concussion treatment.

One thing has not changed about concussions, Bailes said.

“It's always individual,” Bailes said. “What works for one patient does not work for another. That's something everybody needs to remember.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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