Battling concussions

By ERIK SOKOLOWSKI

Concussions.

The word immediately brings to mind the crack of helmets so common during football games.

The after-effect can leave student athletes in a precarious position, which if left unreported could lead to death.

“Concussions are becoming much more frequent,” Dr. Jennifer Naticchia of the Virtua Center for Sports Medicine said. “Brain cells don’t come back once they are gone. And they are so much worse for that age group (students) because the brain and neurologic system are not fully formed yet.”

So what can be done to combat these serious injuries?

High-tech helmets are one weapon. Teaching younger players proper technique, another. And athletic trainers in schools around the area now have help in gauging a player’s recovery.

The ImPACT Baseline Test, a test that measures an athlete’s neurocognitive functions, is in use in schools around the South Jersey area.

For the spring season, all Eastern High School lacrosse players, including freshman and transfer students, must take the test before the start of the season.

And while the test is a useful diagnostic device, “the test isn’t the end all be all,” Eastern athletic trainer Casey Christie said. “We put that together with signs and symptoms the student might be showing. We don’t entirely rely on it; it’s just a piece of the puzzle. The test is not used to diagnose a concussion. We use it as, ‘Ok are you back to normal?’ before we consider letting you back to play.”

Other area schools are also on board with using the test.

“We just instituted it this winter,” Cherry Hill High School East athletic trainer Scott Hatch, M.S., ATC, said.

“A baseline is conducted when they are symptom-free and then if we believe they have a concussion we test them again. The scores are then evaluated by a doctor who has been trained by the ImPACT team and he tells us how to proceed with the athlete.”

The six-step test tests visual and verbal memory, visual motor speed, reaction time and impulse control, and, as the name suggests, creates a baseline to gauge possible symptoms in a student athlete.

A concussion is an alteration in mental status caused by trauma, a bruise of the brain for laymen. The injury results from a direct or indirect blow to the head. It can be mild to severe, and affect normal brain function. Symptoms may not show for days or weeks, and an athlete doesn’t need to be knocked unconscious to get one.

NJSIAA guidelines require a written policy to address suspected or actual concussions, and players must meet certain criteria before returning to play. These criteria include immediate removal from play and no return that day and a medical evaluation. Once a player has been cleared for activity, there is a six-step return-to-play exercise protocol, gradually increasing the level of physical activity.

There are ways, which both Eastern and East’s trainers pointed out, to reduce the number of concussions in contact sports.

“The football team watches a video every year before full contact practices that shows how to properly hit an opponent,” Hatch said. “They teach to, ‘See what you hit’ and to never hit with the crown of your head. This would send forces down the spine and possibly cause a fracture.”

Christie stressed that proper technique is the key to preventing these injuries.

“The talk of certain helmets being better than others is inconclusive right now,” Christie said. “Helmets are good, but I think it comes down to style of play. Concussions happen if you are using the head as your initial point of contact, and student athletes must be taught the correct technique. Style of play and enforcement of rules are more import than the helmet, but they are important, and helmets will get better.”

While football helmets are good for protection from high-force hits, it is the lower-force collisions that are a cause of concern.

“Football helmets are great for preventing skull fractures or brain bleeding from high force hits, and they perform well at that standard,” Christie said. “It is how they perform on lower impact hits, which are enough to cause a concussion, and low impact hits are more common. Just because the helmet performs well at high force, doesn’t mean it will perform well in low force.”

To link to the ImPACT Baseline test visit www.impacttestonline.com/schools.

Visit christy.eastern.k12.nj.us/public/Athletic_Training/Concussions.html for information about concussions from the Eastern Athletic Training office.

And be sure to check back this weekend for more on Second Impact Syndrome.