Ah the excitement of sending the little back to school, the morning rush to get them out the door and to school, followed by a little blissful calm before you launch into your day. With the start of the school year, comes the start of school sports and this can mean injuries. Today, we are exploring concussions and why concussion protocols are vital for the safety and health of our student-athletes.
Concussions account for ~9% of high school and ~6% of collegiate sports injuries. A concussion is defined by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) as, “an injury to the brain that results in temporary loss of normal brain function.” Concussions can occur from a direct blow to the head/face as well as a force injury to another part of the body such as a hard tackle that immediately stops forward momentum creating a whiplash effect. It’s important to recognize that 90% of all concussions DO NOT result in a loss of consciousness and therefore not a valid defense for “getting back in the game”. Concussions have no outward appearance of injury and can create a “shake it off” attitude for the athlete, coaches, parents and teammates. And for this reason, a strict concussion protocol needs to be followed.
So what are the symptoms of a concussion? The AANS states that “diagnostic tests typically will not show any changes. Therefore, diagnosis is based on the nature of the incident and the presence of specific symptoms, confusion being a primary one”. The following are what they look for when detecting a concussion:
- Prolonged headache
- Vision disturbances
- Nausea or vomiting
- Impaired balance
- Memory loss
- Ringing in the ears
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sensitivity to light
- Loss of smell or taste
*There are three things that they look for with regards to “confusion”:
- The inability to maintain a coherent stream of thought;
- An inability to focus and an increased level of distractibility;
- The inability to carry out a sequence of goal-directed movements.
According to a recent article by Dr. Charlotte Moriarty, a physician at Ortho Rhode Island, the following general guidelines should be included in a team’s concussion protocol:
- No athlete should return to play on the day the injury occurs.
- No athlete should resume athletic activities while ANY symptoms are present during exertion or rest.
- “If in doubt, sit them out”.
- Frequent reevaluation and serial exams are absolutely mandatory and it is recommended that the physician conducting the exams has experience in sports medicine and management of sports concussions.
The RIIL (the RI sports “governing” body for high school sports) follows the six-step protocol and even has this handy form for schools to access. And each Westerly student that participates in ANY sport must complete the “Concussions Form” and review it with their parents. In addition, each high school athlete must have a baseline concussion test performed before they begin their season. All of these programs, forms and reviews are necessary to protect our athletes and ensure that their future development is not harmed by a head injury.
I have had first-hand knowledge of many high school athletes that suffered a concussion and were wildly frustrated by the protocol and how long they had to side on the sidelines before returning to action. I understand their frustration, but as a parent, it’s so important to me that these procedures are in place because no game is worth the potentially life-altering effects of returning to play too soon.
So, make sure you talk to your student-athletes about the importance of acknowledging their own injuries and that hiding them could lead to permanent damage down the road. And discuss how important it is to ensure that the safety equipment they wear is done so properly and used every single time they are practicing or playing. Concussions are not to be trivialized or ignored, they can cause significant long-term damage as we have seen with far too many football players. And it’s not just retired, professional players. This past January, a Washington State University quarterback (Tyler Hilinski, a 21-year-old sophomore) took his own life and his autopsy revealed that he suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy aka brain damage) and had the brain of a 65-year-old. And while they are not saying the CTE is what caused him to take his own life, the findings of the autopsy were shocking and a wake-up to the damage that can occur in our young athletes. Tyler Hilinski was not much older than many of our own athletes, and this is why protecting your child is so much more important than making sure they get enough game time.
Please take the time to review the concussion guidelines that our schools follow and talk to your children about the importance of being honest about injuries that they may have. “Suck it up buttercup” is not always the safest motto for an athlete, oftentimes a few days off to allow an injury to properly heal leads to a better season in the long run.