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Athletic medicine programs ramp up safety efforts
NORTH KITSAP — Travis Schriner was not happy to sit out of Kingston High School’s homecoming football game last fall.
One week earlier, after a game against Washington High School, Schriner complained of dizziness and blurred vision, and was sent to the emergency room for treatment of a concussion.
“We were doing a lot of running game, and we were just trying to get the ball in the end zone,” said Schriner, who plays running back. “I kept on going head to head with (the Washington defense). I started feeling dizzy, and my left eye was getting all white and hazy and I couldn’t see very well.”
After an MRI and a few days’ rest, Schriner was eager to get back on the gridiron. But as a precaution, the school’s athletic trainers refused to clear Schriner for play until a week after his injury, causing him to miss the homecoming game.
In high school sports, a concussion is not the most common type of injury, but it can be one of the most dangerous if not treated properly.
“(Concussions) are kind of misunderstood by a lot of people,” said Marja Larsen, head athletic trainer at Kingston High. “It can be just another injury, but it can be dangerous.”
If an athlete suffers a second concussion before healing from a previous one, the result can be a more severe brain injury that may include seizures, bleeding in the brain and in some cases even paralysis or death.
This month, North Kitsap High School began using a software program called ImPACT, which helps coaches and trainers decide when an athlete is ready to return to the field or court after suffering a concussion. Kingston High will soon receive its own copy of the software and begin testing their athletes.
“It just helps us. It gives us one of those tools for return-to-play criteria,” said Chris Franklin, head athletic trainer at North.
Using the program, all student athletes are given a neuro-cognitive test at the beginning of the sports season to establish a baseline of how their brain normally functions. During the season, if a player suffers a concussion, he or she must rest, heal and take the ImPACT test again before returning to play. The software is already used by 28 NFL teams, 31 MLB teams, more than 300 colleges and universities and a variety of other professional sports teams around the globe.
“It’s been shown to be very effective,” Franklin said of the software. “This software is just one of the tools we’re going to use to allow a kid to return to play.”
Last spring, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed what is known as the Zackery Lystedt Law, which prohibits youth athletes from returning to play sports after a concussion unless a licensed health care provider has given their approval. The law is named for a former Tahoma Junior High football player who was paralyzed after continuing to play following a head injury in 2006.
Trainers at Kingston and North have been working to prevent and properly treat head injuries since long before the Lystedt Law was signed. Both high schools have a multi-step program that athletes are required to follow before returning to play after a concussion. Athletes must first rest until their symptoms disappear, then do some light exercise, followed by non-contact drills. Once the athlete has been symptom-free for a week, passed the ImPACT test and received permission from a licensed health care professional or physician, he or she may return to play. If concussion symptoms return or the ImPACT test results show the athlete’s brain functions have not returned to normal levels, they must return to the beginning of the recovery process.
Trainers at both schools are also taking steps to better prevent head injuries in the first place. Larsen attended a concussion symposium earlier this month, and spoke with players and coaches to make sure they are aware of the school’s policies as well as the new law.
“We touch base with all the teams, especially with the new concussion law,” Larsen said.
Franklin and his athletic medicine students ensure players have the proper equipment before taking the field.
“Something that we’ve been doing for the last 14 years to help with concussions is we refit all the helmets for the entire team, before each game,” Franklin said. “(The football players) are pretty well trained so that when they get a haircut, the first thing they’re gonna do is come see me.”
But football players receive only the second-highest number of concussions of any sport in the district. Girls’ soccer players, whose heads are largely unprotected on the field, suffer more concussions than football players. Franklin is working with local dentists to get custom-fit mouth guards for athletes at North, which he said can help reduce the risk of concussions, because they absorb some of the impact of headers and elbows to the skull.
Players and coaches are also continually working to improve techniques and make their play safer. Schriner, now a senior at Kingston, is trying to play smarter.
“There’s always that thought in the back of your mind, when your head starts to ring,” he said.