Concussion Safety and Management
In 2010, the media focus on head injuries in the NFL has also directed attention to the potential impact concussions have on young athletes, high school age or younger. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 135,000 children between the ages of 5 and 18 receive emergency room treatment for sports and recreation-related brain injuries every year.
Athletes who suffer one concussion are at increased risk for another one, and cumulative concussions can cause long lasting or permanent brain damage. One of the most serious side effects of repeated blows to the head is CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Experts believe that repetitive blows, even those that may seem harmless, cause a chemical change in the brain that precipitates the buildup of a toxic protein called tau. Tau accumulations appear to prevent nerve cells in the brain from maintaining normal connections with each other. The buildup causes symptoms associated with CTE like erratic behavior, memory loss, depression, and ultimately dementia.
In light of these serious medical findings and the fact that retired NFL players appear to suffer unusually high rates of dementia, concussion safety and proper concussion management for youngsters are finally becoming a top priority for legislators, school systems, recreational athletic teams, and parents.
- In Congress, legislators have introduced House Bill 1347, known as the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act. The new law would, among other things, direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish concussion management guidelines addressing the prevention, identification, treatment, and management of concussions in school-aged children.
- State legislatures are stepping up to the plate to ensure adequate treatment of concussions. In 2009, Washington was the first state to pass concussion-specific laws covering school sports. Oregon quickly followed suit.
The laws in these two states mandate (1) education for coaches, (2) immediate removal from play of athletes who exhibit signs or symptoms of concussion during a game or in practice, and (3) medical clearance from a health professional before the athlete can return to play.
Passage of these laws has motivated other states, including Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey to consider return-to-play laws for student athletes.
- School system s are looking for ways to measure an athlete’s recovery from a concussion so that coaches and parents can determine when it is safe for an injured athlete to return to play. One tool now used by many school districts is ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing system).
ImPACT is a user-friendly computer based testing program specifically designed for the management of sports-related concussions. It provides baseline and/or post-injury neurocognitive testing which is designed to evaluate an athlete’s condition and to track his post concussion recovery. The test takes about 20 minutes to complete and can be administered by coaches, trainers or physicians.
Some schools test a player’s baseline neurological condition at the beginning of the sports season and then retest those athletes who suffer head injuries or concussion during the year. In this way, coaches and physicians are in a better position to determine when a student has made a full recovery. For more information on ImPACT, visit www.impacttest.com
- Parents fit into this equation too. A parent’s first responsibility is (1) to remain alert for signs and symptoms indicating his child may have sustained a concussion and (2) to assure the child is taken out of his sports activities until he has seen a qualified physician and has been released by that doctor to return to play.
However, parents can do more. They can lobby Congress and their state legislatures to enact concussion specific laws covering school sports.
They can encourage their school systems to adopt strict guidelines for coaches and trainers to follow in handling concussions and preventing student athletes from returning to play too soon.
Finally, they can push their local schools to implement pre-season testing of student athletes so that a student’s post-injury neurological condition can be fairly compared to his pre-injury baseline.