Protecting Olympic brains from concussion & more

U-M sports neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher heads to Sochi as part of Team USA

Concussion expert Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D.

Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D. has been named part of the U.S. Olympic medical team

On February 7, as the world’s eyes turn toward Sochi, Russia and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, a U-M doctor will take to the snow and ice alongside America’s athletes.

Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., is a sports neurologist whose expertise in concussion care has earned him a place on Team USA’s medical staff – and a role watching over the brains of any National Hockey League player on any Olympic team.

These roles – and his role as director of the U-M NeuroSport program for patients, as a team physician for U-M Athletics and a leader in American Academy of Neurology’s sports neurology section – are keeping him super-busy. But he stopped long enough to answer a few questions.

Q: Did you ever dream of going to the Olympics?

A: Growing up, I played hockey and thought about what it might be like to go as an athlete. As the limits of my ability became clear, I thought about going as a spectator – but the realities of my work life haven’t made that possible. So to be finally able to go as a physician for the team is an incredible opportunity. It’s very exciting.

Q: How did you get connected to Team USA?

A: I’ve worked with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which runs the programs for all related disciplines, for almost two years as their neurologist, helping them develop policies and procedures for athletes who are suspected to have a concussion and taking care of other brain and neurological health issues.

That has included providing direct clinical care to USSA skiers and snowboarders, when they need to come to Michigan to see our Neurosport team here in Ann Arbor.  It’s been an honor to do that, and a tremendous learning experience to  become well-versed in all the related sports under the USSA.

Q: Does that mean you have to practice medicine on skis?

A: Sometimes – and fortunately, I do ski. It’s a requirement of the job to be able to get around the slopes, and be confident on skis so you can work with the rest of the medical team when a skier or snowboarder is injured. And those slopes are pretty steep!

Q: You’ve also been involved with hockey and concussions. What’s your role there?

A: I’ve been working both with USA Hockey, which develops the national team here in Ann Arbor, and the NHL Players’ Association and of course, the Wolverines hockey team. So in Sochi, I’ll be available to examine and care for any NHL player who is competing for any country. Currently, there are 149 NHL players on the Olympic rosters.

Q: So now that you’ll be part of the Team USA medical staff, and helping NHL Olympians too, how do you describe what your role is?

A: My main role is to make sure the athletes are participating safely, and that we have their health and safety first and foremost in our minds as they compete.

Q: Which Olympic sport has the highest concussion risk? How do you compare say, figure skating with hockey?

A: Each sport has its own specific concussion risk profile based on the number of times an athlete might experience a fall or an impact, the type of impact it might be, and the speed they are going or objects around them are going when the impact occurs.

Hockey has a significant concussion risk, but it’s different from what the alpine skiers might face. Those skiers don’t fall that often, but when they do it’s very significant. And then you have sports like the aerial skiers, who fall more often, especially in training – it’s a lower-velocity fall but it may be repetitive.

And figure skaters certainly have a risk, too. I don’t think the curling team will be needing me that often, but if they do, I’ll be there to help.

Q: Have you thought about what it might be like to have to tell an Olympic athlete on their big day that they shouldn’t compete because they’ve suffered a concussion?

A: You can’t do what I do and be concerned about what level of participation it is, whether it’s preseason hockey or an Olympic gold medal run. It’s really about safe participation, and I have to be able to make decisions that are completely isolated from the competitive environment.

Q: Is it unusual for a neurologist to be on the Olympic medical staff?

A: It’s quite possible that many of these athletes have not had a neurologist available during competition before, so that may be new for many. I’m there to be a member of a highly trained medical staff, adding another layer of expertise in addition to all the other aspects of sports medicine and athletic training that these athletes have at their disposal. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’ll be prepared to go wherever I’m needed during the games.

Q: What have you heard about the medical facilities in Sochi, should an athlete need to be treated?

A: They’ve built world-class medical facilities as part of the infrastructure for the games, and they have tremendous emergency capabilities. The USOC has plans for every possible situation very well thought-out, and I have no concerns.

Q: While you’re gone, will patients still be able to get concussion care at U-M?

A: Of course, and I’m so grateful that the rest of the Neurosport team is here and will be able to take care of patients in my absence. We have a very strong team with expertise in neurology and physical medicine, and we see patients who are athletes at all levels.

Take the next step:

NeuroSport logoThe University of Michigan NeuroSport program is one of only a handful of comprehensive programs in the U.S. dedicated to the neurological concerns of athletes. By drawing on the resources in the U-M Health System as well as the rich athletic tradition of a historic NCAA program, it specializes in the treatment and prevention of neurological sports injuries, as well as the management of primary neurological diseases that affect athletic performance.


new_logos_180x1806For more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.