Local school leaders say let’s be proactive about concussions

Published 12:12 am Friday, October 22, 2010

Staff Writer

School sports have long been recognized as a great way for students to learn team-building skills, cement friendships and become involved in a sport that can keep them healthy over a lifetime.
But there’s growing concern among educators and public health officials about concussions among student athletes that if left untreated can be devastating.
According to recent research, high school athletes suffered 400,000 concussions in the 2005-2008 school years and studies show many sports-related concussions go unreported.
Research also shows that young athletes are at greater risk of sports-related concussions than college or professional athletes because their developing brains are more susceptible to injury. And, researchers say, young female athletes are even more susceptible to concussions.
Serious brain injuries or even death can occur when an athlete with an undiagnosed concussion returns to play and suffers another injury before the brain has had a chance to heal, a condition known as “second impact syndrome.”
The Beaufort County Board of Education is poised to take steps to protect local student athletes from these serious brain injuries by requiring students who play in certain sports to take a computerized test designed to help doctors determine if they have suffered a concussion and if they are ready to return to play.
The test, known as Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, or ImPACT, was developed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
If an athlete is believed to have suffered a head injury during competition, ImPACT is used to help determine the severity of the injury and when the injury has fully-healed, according to Patrick Abele, executive director of learning services for Beaufort County Schools.
ImPACT was recently previewed for school board members, school principals and the news media.
The test does not replace a medical diagnosis but is intended to help medical professionals with that diagnosis, Abele said during the briefing.
“We want to be proactive and have an additional measure in place before a student athlete returns to play,” he said. “It’s another tool that can be used.”
ImPACT can be used by the schools to help student athletes avoid “second impact syndrome” by preventing them from returning to play before their brains heal, he said.
Those school board members who have seen the test in practice say they support this effort to protect the county’s student athletes from harm.
“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” said School Board Vice Chairman F. Mac Hodges. “If we can protect a student from serious injury, it’s money well-spent.”
School Board member Cindy Winstead also said she supports implementing the test.
“I think it’s a good tool to be able to assess a student after a concussion,” she said.
ImPACT is used by a growing number of high schools, colleges, universities and sports clubs in North Carolina.
These include public schools in Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Lee and Swain counties; Appalachian State, Duke, East Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest universities, and Barton, Louisburg and Mount Olive colleges, among others.
The computerized exam is usually given to athletes before they begin practice in a contact sport. The exam, similar to a video game, takes about 30 minutes to complete and tests an athlete’s ability to remember words, shapes, colors and symbols.
Its results are used as a baseline against which a test taken after a suspected concussion is measured. Once a baseline has been established, an athlete will repeat the test every two years, Abele said.
If an athlete is suspected of suffering a concussion, he or she should be administered the test, usually within 24 to 72 hours after the injury. These results will be compared to the baseline results and will be used by health professionals to diagnose a concussion and determine when it is safe for that athlete to return to play, Abele said.
Under a proposal now before the school board, baseline ImPACT exams will be given to middle and high school students participating in football, basketball, cheerleading, soccer, wrestling, baseball, softball, high jump and volleyball, which have been rated either “collision,” “contact,” or “limited contact” sports by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Abele said.
Student athletes participating in other sports will also be able to take the ImPACT exam if they are suspected of suffering a concussion. Their results will be compared to a national baseline test to determine when they can safely return to play, Abele said.
He estimated the first-year cost of the testing program between $5,000 and $6,000.
“Everyone we’ve talked to has been very supportive of moving in this direction,” he said.
Training for coaches and assistant coaches to recognize the symptoms of a concussion will also be an important part of the effort to protect student athletes, according to Joe Tkach, athletic director for Beaufort County schools.
“The first step is going to have to be the coaches and assistant coaches recognizing the concussion,” he said. “The important thing is for our personnel to be trained.”
Tkach also said the schools need to educate athletes and their parents about the concussions to help them avoid serious injury.
“We’ve got to get athletes to understand that they need to let somebody know that something is not right in order to avoid long-term damage,” he said.
If approved by the school board, ImPACT could be implemented in local public schools this year, Abele said. 
The local discussion of ImPACT comes amid growing concerns about concussions among young athletes.
A recent report by the New York Times uncovered concerns about the safety of football helmets.
That report said that helmets – both new and used – have never been formally tested against the forces believed to cause concussions, according to the Times. The industry, which receives no governmental or other independent oversight, requires helmets for players of all ages to withstand only the extremely high-level force that would otherwise fracture skulls, according to the Times.
The Times reports that the standard has not changed meaningfully since it was written in 1973, despite rising concussion rates in youth football and the growing awareness of how the injury can cause significant short- and long-term problems.