With concussions, high school football teams play it safe

ImPACT program gauges cognitive abilities, memory in effort to recognize concussions in players

nwilson@thetribunenews.comAugust 29, 2013 

Stacey Ritter, director of sports medicine and athletic training at San Luis Sports Therapy, uses a computer-based program to assess concussions with local high school athletes.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Nipomo High football coach Russ Edwards remembers the days when a high-impact head collision that left a player woozy would be assessed by a simple eye test by the coach.

“I remember the good old days when coaches would say, ‘You’re dizzy? You’re fine. Get back in there,’ ” Edwards said. “Now, it’s safety first for all these players — as it should be.”

Like most local high school football teams, a couple of players on Nipomo’s team suffered concussions last season.

But instead of a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement to tough it out, safety measures now involve taking a computer test that gauges cognitive abilities and memory.

Eight Central Coast schools — Mission Prep, Paso Robles, Templeton, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Nipomo and Orcutt Academy — each partner with San Luis Sports Therapy to administer a computer program for student athletes called ImPACT Concussion Testing.

The partnership has existed since 2009.

Last year, San Luis Sports Therapy reported an average of more than 20 concussions per school across a range of sports, including football, soccer, softball and water polo, according to Stacey Ritter, the company’s director of sports medicine and athletic training.

“Basically we’re looking at how the brain is working in response to head injury,” Ritter said. “They must be completely free of cognitive and physical symptoms before they return to play.”

New attention nationwide has been placed on concussions because of how damaging they can be.

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that emergency room visits in the U.S. for sports-related brain injuries among those 19 years old and younger increased from about 153,000 in 2001 to roughly 248,000 in 2009, the most recent figures available.

But despite the dangers of football, the sport doesn’t rank highest for concussion rates for high school sports, a Colorado School of Public Health study illustrated in a Chicago Tribune report.

Three boys’ sports ranked the highest — ice hockey had 6.4 concussions per 10,000 athletes compared with 5.0 for lacrosse and 4.8 for football. Girls’ lacrosse ranked fourth at 3.5 per 10,000 athletes and girls’ soccer was fifth at 3.1.

Ryan Colvin, an offensive lineman on Paso Robles High’s team, recalled hitting heads hard with a teammate in practice last year in a tackling drill. He was diagnosed with a concussion.

After the hit, Colvin described becoming lightheaded and getting headaches.

“It’s kind of scary,” he recalled. “But the trainers help you out a lot. They’re not going to push you. You come back when you’re physically ready. You always want to protect yourself.”

The way the computer evaluation works is that athletes take a baseline test that measures cognitive and memory skills before the season starts.

Then if they suffer a head injury, they take the test again to compare the results.

If response times in recognizing flashes of shapes and patterns on the screen are slower, the program can help show the severity of the injury. The athletes must test in their normal range of response to return to play.

But regardless of how they test, the athletes must make a visit to a doctor to help pinpoint cognitive issues, and the ImPACT program is used as a tool for a physician to assess symptoms and diagnose a condition, Ritter said.

Templeton’s coach, Dan Loney, said the school has volunteer doctors on hand at its games ready to help if needed in diagnosing a concussion.

“We’re lucky to have doctors at the field ready to evaluate if needed,” Loney said.

Chad Henry, Mission Prep’s coach, said he has had players sustain concussions, and the typical period they sit out is about two weeks.

Mission Prep’s five-day program to gradually prepare a player to resume play includes riding an exercise bike, running, agility testing, performing without contact, and then practicing without restrictions.

“If they get a concussion on Friday night, they’re probably not going to pass their baseline until about Wednesday or Thursday, depending on if it’s just a ding,” Henry said. “If they got really banged, it could be two, three, four weeks. You never know. But most of the guys we’ve had haven’t had major concussions.”

Henry and other San Luis Obispo County coaches also have incorporated techniques into tackling drills to prevent the chance of a concussion.

“We teach guys to lead with your eyes, don’t drop your head, keep your head up on tackles,” Henry said. “And when we’re practicing tackling, we have pads they hit with a softer surface than there used to be. So much has changed from even when I played.”

Player safety is such a critical issue that San Luis Sports Therapy donates about half of the cost to provide an athletic trainer to each of its partner schools. The schools pay a stipend for the trainers and some grant money is used for the program as well.

Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center sponsors the ImPACT program.

“There can be permanent consequences, especially in youth athletes, if a concussion is not handled properly in a considerate fashion,” Ritter said.

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