The minutes ticked by as junior Sam Stewart finished his concussion test. During his first test, just two weeks before, it took him no more than 20 minutes. This second attempt seemed to take much longer. It was only three days before that Stewart had suffered a concussion in the SM East football team’s home opener against SM Northwest. The test revealed that Stewart had a concussion and his doctor told him he would not be able to play in the next week’s game.
Recently the Shawnee Mission School District has been taking concussions more seriously. The number of concussions showing up in high school sports was growing at a fast pace. Over the last several years, doctors and school administration have been increasingly concerned with concussions, due to research that shows that concussions are more serious than previously thought. Dr. Greg Canty of The Center for Sports Medicine at Children’s Mercy is one of the doctors behind this research.
“Concussions have really just come into the forefront in the past five to seven years,” Canty said. “Because of a greater awareness of concussion symptoms, we are now becoming more capable to decide when athletes are ready to return to play.”
At the beginning of the 2010 school year, East football players began taking a neurocognitive baseline test, called ImPACT. Athletes take the test online and do a variety of tasks that test memory, attention span and reaction time. With the help of this test, there would be collections of data involving the athlete’s brainpower and ability to react to stimuli. Doctors would then be able to compare back to this if an athlete were to get a concussion later in the season. Starting this year ImPACT is now taken by all contact sport athletes in the SMSD.
First-year East Athletic Trainer Ron Wollenhaupt is optimistic about the use of the ImPACT testing on athletes.
“It is excellent for athletes, because we are looking at the kid’s mental health as well as their physical health,” Wollenhaupt said.
He believes that the added information that comes from ImPACT and other studies is great to educate not only players and coaches, but now also the parents.
“Before, we would ask a kid how they were feeling or if they could walk in a straight line, but now we are finding out that doesn’t cut it,” Wollenhaupt said. “We actually have to dig deeper and find out how the kid is doing mentally before sending them back to play.” According to Kansas High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) representative Brent Unruh, one of their main goals this school year is to educate people about concussions.
“Because there is a lot of brand new research coming out about concussions, we felt it necessary to make some things that used to be recommendations, requirements,” Unruh said. “Overall there has just been a bigger push for greater concussion awareness and education for everybody, for coaches, for players, and for parents as well.”
This school year KSHSAA now requires all athletes to sign a copy of the state’s Sports Head Injury Prevention Act to make sure that people understand the seriousness of concussions. This state wide act contains the return to play guidelines and also states that “any athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion shall be immediately removed from the contest and shall not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health care professional.”
This act has been in place since 2007, but this season KSHSAA is taking it one step further and forcing parents and athletes to sign it before play begins.
As Stewart ran down the field chasing his SM Northwest opponent he lowered his head just a little more than normal and crushed his head right into the ball carrier. He fell into a heap on the ground and his brother, junior David Stewart, immediately ran to help Sam.
“I was able to get up, and the next thing I remember was being on the sideline,” Sam said. “So I don’t really remember running to the sideline at all.”
Neither David or Sam could tell that Sam had a concussion initially—that was something that was left up to the doctors and to the ImPACT testing to discover and confirm the next day.
“When I was laying there, right after the hit, the left side of my face was numb all the way down to my waist—but just on my left side,” Stewart said. “For a minute I really thought I broke my neck, and I was just laying there like, ‘Oh my god.’ But not too long after that I was able to get up and walk off.”
As soon as Sam made it to the sideline, he was met by Canty and Wollenhaupt. They both were fairly confident that Sam had a concussion.
“You look for it, every play, you are looking for it,” Wollenhaupt said. “You look for how a player carries himself off the field and onto the sideline. Sam just did not look right and we could tell right away.”
As doctors and trainers continue to educate parents, players and coaches, they hope to see the number of athletes diagnosed with concussions to get lower and lower.
“Concussion education doesn’t prevent concussions from happening, but hopefully it will begin to help our athletes to recognize what they can do to reduce the risk of this growing problem.,” Canty said.
With concussions under a microscope in Kansas High School athletics this year, the push from doctors and trainers is moving in the right direction. Monitoring athletes progress is becoming much easier and more effective through the ImPACT program which is really helping doctors and trainers make the right decisions concerning athletes.
“Without using the program we wouldn’t have a very good idea as to when to let players like Sam go back and play,” Wollenhaupt said. “He was symptom-free a couple days after the concussion, but the ImPACT testing told us he really was not ready to go back.”
Even though Sam felt better physically, his brain had not had the time it needed to repair from the concussion. Without ImPACT doctors would have not identified the problem, and Sam would have returned to play too early.
“I thought I was ready to play a couple days after the diagnosis,” Sam said, “but now I’m finding out there is a lot more to concussions than just how I feel—it’s also what you can’t feel that makes a difference.”