Chris Heath Researching Concussions For MMA/BJJ Athletes

Written by: Lance Edwards

I recently came across Chris Heath, and the valuable research he is doing. Chris is Texas based, and has been conducting research related to concussion, MMA and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. His research subjects have been Texas based MMA and Jiu Jitsu practitioners, and have included subjects from Houston and Dallas. I asked Chris about his research and how people can get involved.

TCD: How did you get involved in doing research on concussion and MMA/BJJ?

Chris: The person I work with at the University of North Texas has expertise in neurological assessment. My interest in MMA paired with that, and together we developed this study to work with athletes.

TCD: You have an interest in MMA. Do you train yourself?

Chris: I got involved with the sport in 2008 when I was finishing up my master’s degree. Jiu-jitsu appealed to me as an amazing way to stay in shape, while learning a martial art that really looked intriguing. I quickly discovered a sport where you can always grow, learn new things, connect with new people, and feel better about yourself. I’ve been training ever since.

TCD: In football and other sports people are paying more attention to concussions now. Someone was telling me the other day they had a constant headache after a blow but as they weren’t knocked out they would continue training. Should people only be concerned if they are knocked out?

Chris: The belief that “an athlete should only be concerned if they experience loss of consciousness” is one of the scariest pieces of information floating throughout the athletic community. Loss of consciousness is absolutely not necessary for an individual to have a concussion. But because that isn’t well known, people, much like your friend, may be full well experiencing significant concussive effects, but are willing to “shake it off” and return believing they are ok since they weren’t knocked out. The main problem with this is that if an athlete is experiencing a concussion they may not really know it, and unfortunately, athletes are highly vulnerable to a repeat concussion in the first few days after an initial one. That repeat concussion can have significant and lasting consequences, and it’s something athletes definitely do not want to risk.

TCD: What are the symptoms fighters should be considerate of?

Chris: That’s a great question. As it turns out, there tends to be a group of about 20 or so commonly experienced symptoms, grouped into physical symptoms like as headache, nausea, and dizziness. Then there is a cluster of what we call cognitive symptoms, like feeling slowed down, and having difficulty concentrating. The third cluster of symptoms is neuropsychological symptoms, like fatigue, drowsiness, and difficulty falling asleep. I could list all of the 20 or so common symptoms and feel confident in saying that if you experience any of them, from light sensitivity to dizziness, it is important. That being said, if I had to really boil it down and tell people the biggest ones to watch out for, that would be experiencing amnesia in that you don’t recall exactly what happened, disorientation in that you don’t really recall what was going on, and then finally, headaches.

TCD: What exactly are you looking at in your research?

Chris: To make it as short and sweet, I’m looking to see two things. The first thing is whether there are small brain changes in the way information is processed between people who participate in MMA versus those who don’t. And I’m looking at MMA versus BJJ athletes to make that comparison. The second thing is whether those little changes have any relationship to the amount of time an athlete trains.

TCD: You are looking for more subjects, how can people take part in your study?

Chris: They can just email me at cheath@unt.edu and I’ll get right back to them. Participating doesn’t take more than about half hour to 45 minutes. To sweeten the deal, I have three $50 cash prizes that I’m raffling off for participants. And on top of that, I’ll give people their study report. The report is useful because if anybody wants to see a physician in the future for concussion difficulties, it’s great to have this report so that a medical professional can see how they performed at a “baseline” prior to seeking treatment. To go get one of these reports just to have would run you a few hundred dollars, but I give them away to fighters who participate in my research.

TCD: As you are conducting research you would have had to have a good overview of the subject area. In Texas at thirty-five the commission insists fighters have an EEG every six months. Do you have an opinion as to whether this an effective screening method?

Chris: To be honest, I’d say that what Texas is doing right now is a step in the right direction, and likely better than what a lot of states are doing. That being said, I think there is always room for improvement. Computerized neuropsychological testing, like what I’m doing, is becoming a cornerstone of concussion management. One of the main reasons for that is convenience. It’s brief, it can be administered easily and by a number of professionals, you get instant results, and best of all, you can administer it to a large number of people at the same time. Unfortunately, EEG, as well as other tools such as fMRI and PET scans just doesn’t have the convenience that something like a computerized neuropsychological task does, which is why sports teams all over the country are incorporating neuropsyc testing as part of their regular concussion management.

TCD: How much extra risk do fighters who do large weight cuts have of concussive injuries?

Chris: That’s an excellent question, and to this point I have not seen research that would let me answer confidently one way or the other. I would imagine that the biggest threat to fighters cutting large amounts of weight is going to be things like dehydration and fatigue, both of which could negatively impact a fighter’s ability to protect him or herself and perform to the best of their abilities. It’s likely the case that any susceptibility to concussive injury is going to come from that byproduct of weight cutting, rather than as a direct result.