Student concussions worry coaches and staff
February 4, 2011
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The football field was muddy as SRJC sophomore Kevin Hernandez ran towards a linebacker during practice before a match against San Francisco City College. Instead of lighting up the linebacker, Hernandez slipped and took a hard hit to the head.
“Thinking back the next day, practice was like a blur. My whole day that day I couldn’t really concentrate. People tried to talk to me and my mind was just wandering.”
Hernandez had a minor concussion that lasted for a few days. But those few days were not easy for the 6-foot-3-inch lineman. “The first few days after the concussions classes were really hard because of the lights. I was getting bad headaches. I was going through the motions. I wasn’t really learning anything in class because it was too hard to concentrate on stuff like that.”
Hernandez is one of 24 SRJC athletes who had a concussion during the fall. That is four more than last year.
Concussions have become a subject of deep concern in the sports world and many doctors and athletic trainers are trying their best to prevent head injuries. The Santa Rosa Junior College medical staff has been working with student athletes on this issue.
Monica Okubo is entering her fourth year as SRJC’s head athletic trainer and has been working with Dr. Nancy Chinn from the Disability Resource Department on the concussion issue.
A concussion is defined as a complex pathophysiological process affecting the brain, induced by traumatic biomechanical forces. According to the American Academy of Neurology, concussions occur three million times a year in the United States. Among people aged 15 to 24 years, sports are now second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of traumatic brain injury.
Chinn has worked at SRJC for 11 years, and in the first 10 years she saw zero student athletes come to DRD with a concussion injury. Chinn said, “I had not had any referrals of student athletes with concussions until this year, until Monica and I started collaborating on this program.” A total of 11 student athletes have seen Chinn in the DRD this year.
SRJC freshman soccer player Christian Reyes also suffered a concussion last fall during a game in Stockton against Delta College. In the first half of the game, Reyes was going for the ball and was kicked in the forehead by his opponent. Reyes played all but five minutes of the game.
“I was asking the guys what the score was and where we were. I didn’t know who we were playing and what the score was,” he said.
Reyes was happy with the help he received from the medical staff. “The help we got from these guys was really good. Monica was here most of the time. I came here on a Saturday during a football game and she took care of me.” The only problem Reyes had was trying to focus on an English paper he had to write.
The way the SRJC training staff finds out whether an athlete has gotten a concussion is by doing an on-the-field evaluation with a Sports Concussion Assessment Tool 2 (SCAT 2). A SCAT 2 is a tool that represents a standardized method of evaluating injured athletes for a concussion. Okubo said that before the season she and her staff educate the coaches and players about concussions and perform a baseline computer test. Among other things, the baseline test measures reaction time and the ability to differentiate shapes. This gives the medical staff a report on the athlete’s cognitive function.
“Without a baseline how are we supposed to know what we are going to compare it to?” Okubo said.
Okubo and Chinn are both teaching their athletes about concussions and what to do when they get one. “The number one thing we try to tell them is don’t hide it. If you notice your buddy got hit in the head or something report it. We’re really trying to make sure people are aware and take it seriously,” Okubo said.
Okubo said the support from the coaches has been a big help. “We couldn’t do it without their support. They have been very responsive, very positive in terms of wanting the best healthcare for their athletes and wanting to protect their brains and deal with these brain injuries in the best way possible.”
Ignoring a concussion can be fatal if it is not reported immediately. Second impact syndrome is caused when an athlete suffers repeated mild brain injuries over a one-to-two-day period as a result of multiple concussions. These recurring injuries result in brain swelling and bleeding in the skull. New research suggests that even small hits to the head can lead to brain deterioration.
Luckily none of the athletes at the SRJC had anything that serious. But NFL athlete. Chris Henry, the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver who died in a traffic accident last year, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head.
According to his Bengals team doctors and his college team doctors at West Virginia, he never suffered a concussion. But doctors examined Henry’s brain and discovered that if he were to live longer, he would have had severe brain damage.
When student athletes gets concussions they may become sensitive to light and sound. They also have headaches, difficulty concentrating and trouble doing multiple things at once, such as listening to a lecture and taking notes.
Student athletes with concussions are affected both on and off the field. They cannot participate in sports and cannot focus in the classroom. They may request a note taker and have the lecture recorded.
“They may be going in and out, in terms of their concentration, missing bits and pieces,” Chinn said. “Allowing them to wear sun glasses diminishes the effect of that. When they are having these symptoms, like sensitivity to light, difficulty in concentration, the more they exert their cognitive energy, the worse their symptoms can get.”
She added that the student athletes who have had a concussion take their exams to a quiet room because they often get distracted after a concussion. Students will also get more time on an exam because cognitive processing often slows down after a concussion, and it takes longer to think things through.
Chinn said when student athletes come to her office with concussions she educates them on how to manage. “I really reinforce the importance of not just resting physically after a concussion, but resting cognitively after a concussion,” she said. “That means limiting time on the computer. They may need to sleep more at night.”
Athletes are in an environment where they are usually pushing through injuries. It is one thing to push through an ankle injury, but the ramifications of pushing through a concussion can be significant to the athlete and lengthen the recovery time.
With helmet prices at an all-time high, the best products demand hefty prices. Large college football programs and NFL teams can afford the top of the line helmets, but junior colleges and high schools can’t. A 2000 study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine identified the concussion rate in high school football at 5.6 percent. A decade later the rate has increased to 8.9 percent, but an estimated 50 percent go unreported.
Blair Bavuso, the SRJC equipment technician, said that there has never been a helmet that prevented a concussion. The Bear Cubs’ football roster had a total of 70 players at the start of the year. Even with a small budget of $3,400 for 2010 and a large football team, Bavuso said, “Everything we buy is pro quality. That’s all I buy.” The prices of helmets are very high and Bavuso said that they are pricing themselves out of business. Bavuso buys the Schutt DNA helmets that cost $220 and the players are satisfied with them.
Head football coach Keith Simons said, “I think 15 years from now you are going to have space age equipment on these players, that the number one thing is to maintain what’s
up here with these guys and help eliminate those concussions.”