Student researcher tackles concussions head-on
Personal experience has driven Elon University senior Kayla Harvey to study the way collegiate varsity student-athletes recover from the type of head injuries that each year affect millions of Americans.
By Sarah Collins ’18
When Elon University senior Kayla Harvey suffered a concussion after getting kicked in the head during a dance class her junior year of high school, she struggled through grueling headaches to finish classes.
Now, as a senior public health studies major scheduling graduate school interviews, the native of Raleigh, North Carolina is working to ensure student-athletes at Elon have the resources necessary to recover from concussions – resources that she struggled to find when healing from her own high school injury.
As part of Elon University’s 2015 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, Harvey worked with the Elon BrainCARE program, short for “Concussion Assessment Research and Education,” to examine five years of data from Elon varsity sports teams to better understand how collegiate student-athletes recover from concussions.
The project takes a special look at the role played by an athlete’s gender, sport, history of headaches and migraines, and, if applicable, previous diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD.
Her work coincides with growing media coverage surrounding the estimated 1.6 million diagnosed concussions, and the 3.8 million untreated sports-related concussions each year in the United States. Despite the numbers, brain injuries are still not being taken seriously enough, Harvey said.
“It’s so common to hear football announcers say, ‘That was a great hit!’” said Harvey, an Elon College Fellow at the university. “We need to change this stigma to make health the first priority when it comes to athletics.”
Athletes often feel pushed to recover and get back in the game, Harvey said, and outside influences can interfere with recovery time. “Athletes experience internal pressure from themselves and external pressure from coaches to recover quickly,” she said. “Concussions often aren’t given the same patience as a physical injury because from the outside, the athlete appears to be fine.”
Harvey’s findings suggest that concussed athletes with ADD or ADHD take up to twice as long to recover as students who don’t live with such mental health conditions. Athletes anxious to get back in the game - notably those with ADD or other diagnoses - often do not heal completely before resuming physical activity.
This premature “recovery” can make athletes more susceptible to future concussions, creating a dangerous cycle. “When athletes return to their sports too soon, factors like gait and balance may not yet be back to normal,” Harvey said. “This predisposes athletes to additional concussions.”
Harvey hopes the BrainCARE team’s research helps minimize cases of early recovery by providing physicians with information that can personalize treatment based on specific symptoms. Every concussion needs to be treated differently, she has learned. There’s no single treatment method that is effective for every concussion, because there are so many individual factors that influence recovery.
By serving as a peer resource for multiple student athletes, Harvey has been able to observe concussion complications, first by conducting baseline tests and then helping with measurements during the recovery process. Several Elon athletes have become interested in concussion research after undergoing BrainCARE testing.
“When BrainCARE researchers work with an athlete to help them through recovery, it’s a great way to make sure information gets back to his or her team,” Harvey said. “It means a lot for athletes to hear from their peers about the dangers of concussions.”
Professor Eric Hall co-directs Elon BrainCARE with Associate Professor Caroline Ketcham, chair of the Department of Exercise Science. “Many students who show interest in the program have had personal experiences with concussions,” Hall said. “For Kayla, BrainCARE was a way to make her College Fellows research pertinent to her.”
Harvey plans to present her findings next spring at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville.
Outside of her research, Harvey has worked in two roles with Elon University’s Office Residence Life, both of which have influenced her academic and career interests. She said her roles enabled her to educate campus residents about the serious nature of concussions.
Her undergraduate research and her work with Residence Life are pointing Harvey toward full-time work with college students. She said she plans to pursue a graduate degree in higher education administration.
Harvey is the daughter of Ed and Christina Harvey of Raleigh, North Carolina, and a 2012 graduate of Enloe High School in Raleigh.