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Concussion: Schools adopt testing to ensure players’ safety

  • AP photo<br/>Malden Catholic High School athletic trainer Torey Manzi, left, administers a concussion symptom check to offensive lineman Alex Brady (52) during the game against Xaverian Brothers High in Westwood, Mass., won by Xaverian 35-7, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Concussion symptoms are watched carefully by the training staff given the medical information that has recently come to light. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)

    AP photo
    Malden Catholic High School athletic trainer Torey Manzi, left, administers a concussion symptom check to offensive lineman Alex Brady (52) during the game against Xaverian Brothers High in Westwood, Mass., won by Xaverian 35-7, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Concussion symptoms are watched carefully by the training staff given the medical information that has recently come to light. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)

  • IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE - Members of the New Britain Jr. Hurricanes participate in the 'Heads Up Football' practice during a visit from Heads Up Football Advisory Committee Member Chris Golic and her husband Mike on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 in New Britain, Connecticut. (Kike Calvo/AP Images for National Football League)

    IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE - Members of the New Britain Jr. Hurricanes participate in the 'Heads Up Football' practice during a visit from Heads Up Football Advisory Committee Member Chris Golic and her husband Mike on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 in New Britain, Connecticut. (Kike Calvo/AP Images for National Football League)

  • AP1PFF Children playing football

    AP1PFF Children playing football

  • AP photo<br/>Malden Catholic High School athletic trainer Torey Manzi, left, administers a concussion symptom check to offensive lineman Alex Brady (52) during the game against Xaverian Brothers High in Westwood, Mass., won by Xaverian 35-7, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Concussion symptoms are watched carefully by the training staff given the medical information that has recently come to light. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)
  • IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE - Members of the New Britain Jr. Hurricanes participate in the 'Heads Up Football' practice during a visit from Heads Up Football Advisory Committee Member Chris Golic and her husband Mike on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 in New Britain, Connecticut. (Kike Calvo/AP Images for National Football League)
  • AP1PFF Children playing football

This is the first of a four-part series on concussions and their impact on youth sports in the area.

The football player absorbed a hard hit on a kickoff at a recent high school football game and was clearly dazed. He staggered around until a teammate hollered, “Hey, you all right?” The player turned and gave a wobbly thumbs-up.

The concerned teammate was joined by another, and the two led their injured teammate off the field, resisting attempts by the woozy player to stay in the game. Soon, the coach joined in and ordered the injured player to get to the bench.

The injured footballer finally acquiesced and took a seat as trainers came over to check on him.

Soon, the boy’s parents were brought down to the field because paramedics wanted him to go to the hospital for further examination.

The boy pleaded to stay in the game and his father — presumably an old-school football guy — at first seemed to acquiesce to the boy’s wishes. It was another case of a parent not exactly sure what to do.

But the medics and coaching staff insisted that the boy was done for the night, possibly longer, depending on the results of tests at the hospital and days later.

As it turned out, he would not play again this season.

Welcome to the new era in sports, one filled as much with concern over the well-being for the players as for winning games.

The change is based on good reasons. The recent raised awareness about head injuries not only in football, but in all sports, has left many parents having to make decisions about what is best for their children ... balancing long-term health against short term gains in confidence and social acceptance.

It’s a concern that has affected playing fields around the country, and the hardest hit sport has been football.

Gone are the days when disoriented football players were helped back to the huddle by other teammates and given a quick slap to the helmet as the solution to unscrambling their brain.

Today, local high schools have strict protocols for dealing with head injuries, due to recent studies that show the potentially severe long-term effects on the brain from repeated blows to the head.

“Concussions that may have gotten overlooked in the past are now being caught,” says Frontier athletic director Marty Sanderson. “I think we’re seeing more head injuries today, but I think that’s because we’re more conscious of the need to catch all of them.”

High schools now have measures in place for dealing with head injuries, not just in football, but in all sports.

For many, it starts with the ImPACT test, which gives players a baseline that can be measured against in the event of a subsequent head injury. The test makes a record of reflex time, short- and long-term memory and other important brain functions.

Each school also has its own protocol for allowing a student back onto a playing field following the possibility of a concussion. Many of those include players showing any symptoms of a concussion needing a doctor’s note before getting back on the field.

“We’re not trainers, we’re not doctors, so whenever there’s a suspected head injury, it’s reported to the nurse and reported to the principal,” says Greenfield High School athletic director and head football coach Mike Kuchieski.

“There’s a huge protocol after that. Nowadays, any time somebody gets a head injury, you’ve got to check it out, and the players are not allowed to play without getting cleared by a doctor.”

Tough guys

The old adage in football was that players had to be tough — if they were hurt, they shrugged it off and got back into the huddle, earning the respect of their peers and of the coaches.

That culture has diminished, somewhat. Sure, players still play through bumps and bruises, and aches and pains, but with research now showing the alarming effects of head injuries, coaches, players and parents are forced to be more wary of even the slightest symptoms.

“Back in the day, you got banged in the head, you shook it off and went back out there,” said Kuchieski, a 10-year veteran of the game. “But with all the studies now, you can’t do that because of the long-term brain injuries. I don’t know how many times I got banged in the head playing.

“In fact, my wife says I have a head injury all the time.”

The coach jokes, but brings up a good point. While the worst cases are publicly documented, there are many more former football players that suffer little to no ill effects from playing.

And concussions can happen in any sport, not just in football, which has been the most scrutinized of late. Mohawk Trail Regional High School athletic director Fred Redeker also pointed out that the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams at his school also had about six combined concussions this fall, and the other ADs agreed.

“Quite honestly, we had more concussions in volleyball a few years ago than we did in football,” Sanderson said, offering that former Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year and Division I collegiate player Cassidy Stankowski’s monstrous hits caused a fair share of those.

“Concussions are not just happening to football players. They’re happening throughout the whole spectrum of sports. Football has its share, but it’s certainly not just football that gets concussions.”

Mohawk and Frontier both use the ImPACT testing for students, while Greenfield does not use the ImPACT test, but sends players to see sports medicine specialist Darius Greenbacher in the event of head injuries.

Prevention hard

Greenbacher said the ImPACT test is a great tool for doctors to have because it gives them something to measure against. It does not help prevent concussions, but can help ensure that doctors don’t miss a brain injury and allow a player back onto the field before he or she is properly healed.

“We for sure know that people continuing to play with concussions that are not properly healed, very well will lead to prolonged symptoms, and can often cause long-term issues,” he said.

A preventative measure taken by some programs has been to upgrade to the latest and best helmets, something for which Mohawk parent boosters helped fund-raise over the past year. However, even with the new equipment,

Mohawk still had about half-a-dozen reported concussions this fall, putting it on par with numbers from last season. Greenbacher admitted that new helmets that fit properly are a good step, but there is no way to fully prevent concussions.

“It’s worth having new helmets, but there’s no helmet that’s going to (completely) prevent concussions,” he explained.

A study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that newer brands of helmets and mouth guards do not reduce the risk of concussions.

“Our preliminary findings suggest that neither any specific brand of football helmet nor custom mouth guards result in fewer concussions in kids who use them,” said lead co-investigator Margaret Alison Brooks. “Despite what manufacturers might claim, newer and more expensive equipment may not reduce concussion risk. So is it worth the significant extra cost to families and schools?”

Tom O’Brien, the head athletic trainer on Greenbacher’s staff, agreed that while it is never a bad thing to wear a mouth guard, there is little evidence suggesting a mouth guard will help prevent concussions.

“From what I’ve dealt with, the research is inconclusive,” he said. “Mouth guards are worth wearing for a number of reasons, and while some research shows some benefits, other research shows no correlation between mouth guard use and concussion prevention.”

As for the new brand of helmets, Greenbacher said that its not a bad idea to wear newer equipment, but its good to know it can only do so much.

“There maybe a minimal decrease in your head-on risks with a top-end helmet, but since we know that essentially the whip-lash movement of the head is what causes concussions, you can have your head encased in cement and still get one.

“There will be nothing that we will ever have that you can put on your head that will prevent a concussion.”

Friday: Diagnosis with new tools

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