PROTECTING THE BRAIN: Improved concussion protocols provides safer competition
By BRANDON HURLEY
From the outside, the sport may look as violent as ever.
But, peel back the curtain, mingle around the practice field and sideline and you’ll more than likely spot safety as the top priority.
The Greene County school district and the Greene County Youth Athletic Association have partnered with 21st Century Rehab in Jefferson to usher in an innovative and proactive program for local athletics. ImPACT Concussion testing is a FDA-approved program that provides scientific results, which in turn improves player and student safety. ImPACT (Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) is designed to identify and diagnose concussions and provides coaches, athletes and trainers with the necessary steps to recovery.
As defined in Iowa Code Section 280.13c issued to all Iowa schools, a concussion is “a brain injury which results in a temporary disruption of normal brain function. A concussion occurs when the brain is violently rocked back and forth or twisted inside the skull, typically from a blow to the head or body.”
Data from the National Federation of High Schools suggests that over 140,000 high school athletes across the country sustain concussions each year, throughout all sports.
The most telling part of the description as it continues is the tidbit explaining that an athlete does not need to lose consciousness to be concussed. Less than 10 percent of athletes actually lose consciousness.
That’s an aspect Greene County and 21st Century are taking square aim at eliminating with the ImPACT testing.
Deb Morton, the director of rehab services with 21st Century Rehab, administers the tests along with Ashley Beekman to all Greene County sports, from the varsity level down to third grade.
“It’s a more concrete way to test (for concussions). It’s more objective,” Morton said. “In the past, we’ve done balance tests and memory testing. I feel this gives us another layer of evidence and objective information that they (the athletes) can’t necessarily fake.”
The software issues a 45-minute baseline test for each athlete every two years. It tracks an athlete’s normal cognitive functions including memory, concentration, problem-solving and reaction time. The results are stored on a secure server for when an athlete is suspected of having sustained a concussion. They’ll take a test and compare results. The tricky part is, the baseline test can not be given within an hour of physical activity.
This tedious but scientific process eliminates any gray areas, and it’s not exclusive to football either. All athletic teams at Greene County are required to take the baseline test.
“Most of them, after the test, they get that (it’s important),” Morton said. “The test is not easy. They have to really use their brain and concentrate.”
In the first year of the program, 21st Century Rehab has administered more than 200 baseline tests for students grades 7-12 and 69 pediatric baseline tests for youth football players.
“I think a big thing, (because) it’s in the news, we need to educate the public that playing football isn’t a bad thing,” Morton said. “Yes, you’re at a higher risk, but with the education and knowledge and if it’s managed well, there wont be as many problems.”
If a player suffers a concussion during a game, they won’t see the field the following Friday. Recovery time is the most important part. A week is not enough time to give the body and brain a chance to heal.
A conclusion drawn form the International Conference on Concussion in Sport held Oct. 2016 in Berlin, Germany states while there is no concrete evidence concussions in fact do lead to permanent brain damage, prior cases do suggest a correlation.
“The potential for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) must be a consideration, as this condition appears to represent a distinct tauopathy with an unknown incidence in athletic populations,” the statement read. “A cause-and-effect relationship has not yet been demonstrated between CTE and SRCs or exposure to contact sports. As such, the notion that repeated concussion or sub-concussive impacts cause CTE remains unknown.”
Symptoms of CTE have been found in legendary NFL stars as well as athletes in high school.
The increased concussion awareness isn’t a result of more concussions, Greene County football coach and activities director, Mitch Moore said, it’s an improved attention to detail.
“We are evaluating them better and identifying them better,” the former wide receiver said. “It’s safer for them from an athlete’s standpoint. They will know how to take the correct rest. They know if they have a headache or a concussion they (shouldn’t) go back in.
They need to wait until they are cleared because it can affect their life down the road if they continue to get concussions.”
As a former football player himself, at Ballard High School and the University of WIsconsin-Whitewater in the mid-2000s, Moore fully embraces the recent uptick in concussion management. It betters the game all across the board.
“You can’t get to peak performance if you have a concussion,” Moore said. “To me, I like that there’s more scientific evidence and proof for what a concussion is. We are doing a better job in evaluating it. At the end of the day, it’s for the kids and it’s a good thing we are on top of it more than we were 10 years ago.”
On the field and in the weight room, Moore is pushing his guys to improve their strength and conditioning, especially core strength. That, and a less intense practice regime with an eye on reducing contact as well as proper tackling technique.
“We are developing more neck and core strength. If that can (eliminate concussions) by a percentage, we are going to do that,” the coach said. “We are going to stay hydrated and we aren’t hitting as much as we used to. We aren’t full tackle. We are putting a great emphasis on keeping your eyes up and not leading with your helmet. The helmet is not a weapon.”
Bob Allen, a 1998 Jefferson-Scranton graduate and one of the top directors in the Greene County Youth Athletic Association, is a huge supporter of the local concussion program. He jumped on board with it immediately, citing many of his struggles as a high school and college football player. He pushes education and awareness, just like 21st Century Rehab.
“The software is a tool. Ten years from now, we can use all the data that we have,” Allen said. “The answer isn’t not to go out for football. Football can teach you about life relationships. We are being much more proactive. But we are just scratching the surface with research.”
He continued, “This helps us identify concussions. As a coach, we can look at an ankle and tell it’s injured. But with concussions, you can’t see it.”
Allen is a father, one who wants to see his play football, but play it safely. The solution isn’t to abandon the sport all together. ImPACT testing is a step forward.
“It’s why I’m so adamant as a dad and a coach,” he said. “I want them to be safe and teach them there is a right way to play the game. There’s so much unknown. If we could take this research and use it, we can make the game safer.”
The program proves there are ways to do that. It’s not just learning to make the proper tackle, it’s learning how severe the concussion was and how to recover properly. Continued monitoring is key. No longer can you sit a play or two out and go back in. The student athlete must pass the baseline test to be cleared for contact.
The testing eliminates the give-and-take of the athlete and player relationship. Allen heeds on the side of caution and pulls a player from the game whenever a violent collision occurs. He wants to get ahead of it a potential injury.
“The biggest challenge is they don’t want to come out if they don’t feel like they have a concussion,” Allen said, who helps coach the sixth grade Jefferson youth team. “It’s hard to get them to stop playing.”
Players can no longer lie their way into more playing time. It’s safety over winning in Greene County.