Head in the Game
All eyes are on concussions in high school sports
by Mike Narducci

Millions of football fans held their breath last November, as the Eagles’ star running back, Brian Westbrook, lay rigid and unconscious on the field during a Monday night game against the Washington Redskins. He suffered a serious head injury, but returned to the game three weeks later. To everyone’s horror, he was leveled again in that game with another concussion. This time, he was out of the game for five weeks.

Around the same time, legislators called the NFL into hearings about concussions and the potential long-term effects on athletes. Everyone was taking the issue very seriously.

When a high school student gets a blow to the head during a game, it’s just as serious and scary. Whether they are well-trained professionals or young students just starting out, when an athlete steps out onto the field, they put their safety on the line. They can wear pads and helmets and follow sportsman-like conduct, but the chance of injury is always there.

Concussions are not only one of the most common injuries, they can also be the most serious. And now, area high school teams and training staffs, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and even legislators are turning their attention to this important issue.

Concussions occur in all sports, but football appears to be the most prevalent. According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), each year between 4 and 6 percent of high school football athletes sustain concussions. However, true injury incidence is much higher since some research suggests that more than half of high school athletes who get concussions don’t report their injuries to medical personnel.

“Some athletes don’t want to miss a single game, but they have to realize that if they don’t get the proper treatment, it’s something that could bother them for a long period of time,” says George Stollsteimer, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and the team doctor for Council Rock High School South in Holland.

A concussion develops when there is any altered mental status—like passing out—that occurs after a blow to the head, Dr. Stollsteimer, says. Headaches, dizziness and nausea are common symptoms.

Dr. Stollsteimer and Emil Matarese, MD, the Council Rock South team neurology consultant, are the ones who determine when an injured athlete returns to action. Getting back on the field too soon can cause serious health risks, but Dr. Stollsteimer says he hasn’t seen an athlete come back too soon from a concussion at his school.

Some schools, such as North Penn in Lansdale, are able to provide testing for concussions. According to Steve Rothermel and Leanne Edwards, the school’s athletic trainers, North Penn mandates that athletes who play sports with the potential for contact— football, lacrosse and soccer, for example—must undergo a verbal memory test to serve as a baseline.

“Then, if the athlete sustains a concussion, they get retested to see if there are any deficits in the brain,” Rothermel says.

Coaching athletes in proper technique can help prevent injuries, says Mark Schmidt, long-time football coach at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne.

“You look at teams that have success, and they play a certain way and teach the right way,” Schmidt explains. “[When tackling], their knees are bent, their heads are up and their feet are moving. By using the right technique, you eliminate those 100-percent absorption collisions.”

State representative Tim Briggs (DMontgomery) is the primary sponsor of House Bill No. 2060, which addresses the management of concussions and head injuries. One of the most important provisions requires that students’ parents or guardians sign a concussion and head injury information sheet.

It also mandates that a student who sustains a concussion or head injury in practice or a game must be removed immediately. Students wouldn’t be able to return to action until they got the go-ahead from a licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussions.

“When I took office I wanted to make protecting our children a priority of mine,” Briggs says. “After seeing a strong new law on youth sport concussions from Washington state, I was determined to make sure Pennsylvania followed suit in doing everything we can to protect out student athletes.”

Marc Narducci is a freelance writer based in South Jersey.