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Here’s the good news: a growing number of colleges and high schools across the country have finally started taking concussion prevention and management seriously. By educating athletes on the signs and symptoms of concussion, requiring baseline and post-concussion neurocognitive testing, and — most important — removing youth athletes from play immediately following a brain injury (even a suspected on), we’re making great strides in protecting the safety of our children, and ensuring that they will have long, happy, and healthy athletic careers. There’s even a nationwide legislative movement afoot to require all schools and athletic programs to establish formal concussion-management programs.
Now, here’s the bad news: the majority of American middle schools and elementary schools, as well as most community and recreation-based sports leagues, do not have any kind of program in place to identify, prevent, or manage concussions. As most parents know, rarely will you find an athletic trainer or other health care professional at a soccer practice for 6 year olds, or on the sidelines at a peewee football game. Rarely have youth sports coaches been educated about the dangers of a brain injury, or even shown what to look for. That means that millions and millions of young children are not only at greater risk of sustaining a concussion, but are less likely to receive the proper care and medical attention when they do get injured. Parents and coaches are often forced to navigate the confusing world of concussion aftercare alone, without any sort of guidance about where to go, what to do, who to consult, or how to help their child on the road to recovery.
This chapter outlines a detailed eight-step plan to help athletes, parents, and coaches determine exactly what to do if they suspect that a child has sustained a concussion. I’ll also discuss alternative (less mainstream) therapies that have shown some anecdotal effectiveness in treating lingering symptoms and post-concussion syndrome. And I’ll explain the frequent need for academic accommodations at school, and suggest ways to ensure that your injured athlete is getting the help he or she needs.
If your child’s school or sport team already has a formalized concussion-management program in place (one that incorporates neurocognitive baseline testing), then step one is easy — your child will be tested automatically in the preseason, before she ever sets foot on the field. It’s still a good idea to check that your child is eligible to participate in the testing program. Some schools, for example, due to limited financial resources, may choose to test only varsity athletes, or may opt to establish a baseline only once (typically during freshman year) without every updating the scores. Don’t just assume that your young athlete has undergone baseline testing, or that her baseline test is valid or up to date.
If there is no formalized concussion program in place, you can obtain private baseline testing from a sports concussion specialist. These are licensed health care professionals who have been trained in administering and interpreting preseason and post-concussion neurocognitive testing. Such individuals include neuropsychologist, as well as some physicians who specialize in sports concussion. A neurocognitive specialist can then store baseline data should it be needed for a post-concussion comparison in the future. To find a listing of neuropsychologists in your area, you can log on to the National Academy of Neuropsychology’s website (nanonline.org). Or, to find a listing of CICS and test sites, log on to the IMPACT website (impacttest.com). Be aware that health insurance companies typically will not cover baseline testing because it is considered a “well visit,” meaning there is no diagnosis or disease for which the child is receiving medical services. Be wary of organizations that allow you to take a baseline test in your home, without oversight or education from a concussion specialist.
Regardless of whether baseline testing is obtained in school or in a private clinic, be sure that your child, coaches, athletic trainers, and other school personnel have received some kind of training in concussion prevention and identification. The best way to identify a concussion is to know what to look for.
One of the most common questions I hear form both parents and coaches is, “How do I know if the athlete actually has a concussion?” Vigilance is key. Detecting a possible brain injury is relatively easy when there are obvious signs: if the child blacks out or can’t keep his balance, for example. (And in such cases, you should seek immediate medical attention.) Otherwise, parents and coaches should be familiar with the behaviors of the youth athletes in their charge, and should become active observers at practices and games. Watch out of blindside hits and rough tackles, and keep a particular eye on athletes who have experienced a concussion in the past.
Excerpted from Ahead of the Game: The Parents' Guide to Youth Sports Concussion. © 2012 Rosemarie Scolar Moser. Dartmouth College Press. Used with permission. www.upne.com/dartmouth.html.