EL PASO – Stadium lights beam down on a high school Friday night football game as the ball is snapped, shoulder pads clash and the crowd roars when the wide receiver dodges, turns around and reaches for the ball only to be blindsided by a crushing tackle that floors him with a concussion.
Concussions are the most common injury athletes face and it is an injury that has lifelong medical consequences for young athletes. Sports-related concussions rank second in the number of brain injuries after motor vehicle accidents according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We deal with some kind of concussion about two to three players a game,” said Casey Austin, a graduate assistant and athletic trainer at the University of Texas at El Paso.
UTEP’s football team experiences some 24 concussions per season, he said, but “that’s not including practice concussions.” The number of concussions would be higher, he said, if practices are included. “We probably have one or two a week during the season practices,” Austin said.
In an action that highlighted the danger of concussions during practice events, the presidents of eight Ivy League colleges agreed n July 2007 to limit full contact practices in order to lower the number of concussions among their football players.
According to the Journal of Athletic Training, as reported by the New York Times, during a full season, “…each of the [eight Ivy League] schools averaged 2,500 total hits to the head that measured as significant blows (50 to 79 g’s of force) and about 300 hits to the head that were considered in the concussion-causing range (80 to 119 g’s). Each team experienced almost 200 practice collisions that measured above 120 g’s, which experts have likened to crashing a car into a concrete wall at 40 miles an hour.”
UTEP players must undergo detailed physical exams before they suit up at the beginning of each season including a pre-concussion assessment so the staff and doctors can define the player’s health baseline. That way the doctors can see when the player’s normal baseline is restored after a concussion.
“This is very helpful because this is what helps us (trainers) know the player’s progress after a concussion,” Austin said. “When a player shows symptoms of a concussion we usually give them a home concussion instruction sheet with trainer phone numbers and what the athlete can and can not do.”
David Cohen athletic trainer at Hanks High School said that they counted five concussions this football season that occurred during games and at practices. Approximately 140,000 high school students suffer concussions each year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. “The district has made lots of changes on how we handle concussions due to Natasha’s Law,” Cohan said.
Natasha’s Law, which went into effect in Texas on September 1, 2011, aims to protect athletes from concussions. This is after Natasha Helmick a soccer player received two consecutive concussions. She continued to play with symptoms of a concussion, but she did not tell anyone about her symptoms. She now suffers from many permanent health problems. If a student receives a concussion, according to the new regulation, that player cannot play again without clearance from a doctor or athletic trainer.
“Our student trainers and coaches undergo more training in identifying the symptoms and how to handle other football injuries,” Cohan said. The trainers go to camps and other classes to help prepare them for any situation on the field, Cohan explained.
“The return to play protocol suspends a student from playing till a physician has evaluated him. Once they have been diagnosed they will be put to a series of test by a trainer gradually returning the athlete to the field. The test consists of five assessment steps they need to pass,” Cohan explained. The athlete then must be examined by a physician before he can return to the field.
“This is a bit tedious but a concussion is nothing to take lightly,” Cohan added.