Sports teams, from youth leagues to the professional level, are becoming increasingly aware of the long-term health risks of concussions and are doing something about the problem.
Star players have been lost for long periods of time, and professional sports leagues are adopting new rules and procedures to treat and prevent concussions. The concern has trickled down to the high school level as well, and Haverhill athletic officials are currently drafting a new policy on how to deal with concussions.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has required that all MIAA schools have an expanded policy in place by March 1 that will cover how to properly handle concussions suffered by student athletes. Haverhill Athletic Director Tom O'Brien is in the process of creating a detailed policy that will be presented during an upcoming School Committee meeting.
"Ninety percent of the plan we have had in place for a long time," said O'Brien.
Changes to the policy include procedures to test players who have suffered suspected concussions before they are allowed back onto the field. Before every season, players in designated "contact" sports must undergo an ImPACT test done by Northeast Rehab. ImPACT is an acronym for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing.
Northeast Rehab has a contract with Haverhill athletics to provide athletic training services to several sports teams. ImPACT is a computer-based test that provides a baseline of the athlete's current health and mental acuity.
When a player is diagnosed with "concussion-like symptoms" by a trainer, the player is immediately removed from the game and not allowed to return. The player must see a physician after 72 hours of rest. The physician must clear the athlete and the athlete must then undergo ImPACT testing again. If the results of the ImPACT test vary greatly from the baseline test, the athlete must continue to sit out.
"The most important thing is not letting an athlete return too soon," said O'Brien. "A huge part of it is educating coaches, players and everyone else involved in athletics on concussions."
Concussions have plagued professional sports in recent years. In the National Hockey League, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins have both missed a significant amount of time due to concussions. Both players tried to return too soon after their concussions and were forced back to the sideline after a reoccurrence of symptoms. Savard's career is likely over.
The NHL has made an effort to try to prevent concussions out of the game by attempting to eliminate blows to the head during play. If a player suffers a head injury during a game, he is are required to go to a dark, "quiet room" for 15 minutes before he can return.
The National Football League has also instituted a new concussion policy and has forbidden any player who has been diagnosed with a concussion to return to the game. A concussed player must be cleared by an independent physician before he can return to the field for the team's next game.
In Haverhill, the number of concussions is cause for concern. Athletic trainer Dave Warwick estimates that 10 football players and two hockey players have been concussed this academic year. Six other athletes in other sports have also been diagnosed with concussions. Those numbers have not varied significantly from the past couple of years.
Parris Williams is one player who has been subject to the concussion policy. He missed the tail end of the football season after he was diagnosed with a concussion. Williams was cleared to come back for the start of the wrestling season, but his symptoms came back and he was forced to miss the first couple weeks of action. He is now back and in full health.
"The hardest part is that concussions are inevitable," said Warwick. "We try to get them the best equipment that we can to prevent them."
O'Brien believes there are several reasons that concussions have come to the forefront of youth sports. The players are bigger and faster, and when the game is played at such a higher speed, it results in more violent collisions, which lead to concussions. Another factor is that there is more awareness of concussions. In the past, players would often return to the game after a hard hit to the head as soon as they regained their senses. Now with all the documentation required for head injuries, the number of reported concussions has grown.
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