High School Concussion Management and Rehabilitation
Posted on 3/16/2018 by Stephanie Wilkins, MSEd, ATC, and Leah Friedland, M.S., ATC
Concussions are a great concern throughout the world of sport and especially in the high school setting. They can impact the student-athlete not only on the field, but also in the classroom and their daily lives. As athletic trainers in the high school setting, when a concussion has occurred, we are involved in the entire process, including:
We help with education, implementation of proper concussion protocols and serve as an advocate for the student-athlete in their sport, classroom and life.
Education – Despite the growing awareness and concern that is present in the media over concussions, we find that coaches, parents and athletes are often still uninformed about the seriousness of concussions and the proper way to handle them. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that is caused by either a direct force/blow to the head or a force transmitted through the body to the head. As high school athletic trainers, we find ourselves explaining to coaches that “getting your bell rung” is the same as sustaining a concussion, and that it is not something that can be ignored. “This wasn’t a big deal back when I played sports, and I turned out fine,” is not an acceptable way of viewing this issue.
We are seeing now that, decades later, people are experiencing abnormal brain function and lasting damage as a result of previous head trauma that might not have been managed properly. Concussion education is not intended to scare people, but rather to inform and stress that concussions should be handled appropriately and taken seriously.
We must also work to change the team attitude around concussions and urge athletes and coaches to take responsibility for their well-being and the well-being of their teammates. The culture of not reporting concussions for fear of sitting out or being made fun of must not continue. High school athletic trainers are in the unique position of helping create this cultural change within sports programs and we strive to do this by forming relationships with our coaches, parents and student-athletes that are based on trust and compassion.
Baseline Testing – Every concussion is different; even in one person, different concussive episodes can present in different ways. Symptoms of a concussion include:
Appearing dazed or confused
Nausea and vomiting
Imbalance… and more
There are few objective measures available to diagnose concussions, so it’s important to have a baseline evaluation for each athlete to help determine return-to-play.
We perform this evaluation at the beginning of the season to obtain a baseline score, i.e. an athlete’s “normal” level of functionality. If the student-athlete sustains a concussion during that season, a second test will be administered. This second test occurs when they are symptom-free and have completed the return-to-play progression.
In our high school, we implement two different tools for baseline testing. With more than 800 student-athletes, we prioritize the high risk contact sport athletes (like those participating in football or soccer) and administer baseline tests to those sports. The first test is ImPACT®, a computer neurocognitive exam that tests word and image recall, reaction time, motor speed and symptom report. The alternate test we use is C3 Logix. In addition to a neurocognitive exam, C3 Logix includes a balance and vision component. It is more comprehensive and time intensive, whereas the ImPACT® Test is more easily administered to a large team all at once.
We don’t use ImPACT® or C3 Logix to diagnose concussions, but rather as a tool to monitor their healing process and identify any potential problem areas.
Evaluation and Diagnosis – The most important aspect of concussion management in the high school setting is communication. We’ll discuss concussion management with both the student-athlete and parents/guardians to discuss next steps and answer any questions they may have
Next, we communicate with our Concussion Oversight Team (COT). The COT is a multidisciplinary group of individuals who help manage the student-athlete’s post-concussion care. It includes the athletic trainers, team physician, school nurses, athletic director and school counselors. We also email the coach and physical education teacher. This is our opportunity to provide athletic and/or academic accommodations as needed. The counselors and nurses are vital for helping communicate with the student-athlete’s teachers.
Occasionally, a student-athlete will require academic accommodations. These are specific to each individual and can include wearing sunglasses to help with sensitivity to light, postponing quizzes or tests, limiting use of computer work or leaving class early. Most students don’t require academic accommodations, but all are excused from gym class and athletics until their symptoms have resolved and they have completed the return-to-play progression.
Follow-Up – Oftentimes, parents will ask, “Does my son/daughter need to go to the doctor or the emergency room?” The emergency room is rarely indicated unless there are signs and symptoms of a brain bleed. This will be evaluated at the time of the injury and, if there is concern, a referral to the emergency room will be made.
Research shows that most concussions resolve within 7-14 days. Our protocol recommends following up with a physician if the symptoms have not resolved within 7-10 days. And, referral to an appropriate health care provider is essential. When possible, we will refer to a concussion specialist who works with these cases on a normal basis. The average primary care physician will not have expertise in concussion management. We will sometimes recommend following up with an ophthalmologist if the student-athlete is having difficulty with vision or physical therapy due to vestibular problems.
As athletic trainers, we take care to be as best prepared to diagnose and treat concussions as possible. We put a strong emphasis on communication with the athlete, parents, coaches and school in order to return the student-athlete safely to school and sport. Concussion research will continue to evolve over the years to come, just as we will continue to adapt and update our management protocols to keep student-athletes safe and active.
By: Stephanie Wilkins, MSEd, ATC, and Leah Friedland, M.S., ATC. Stephanie and Leah serve certified athletic trainers for NovaCare Rehabilitation in Chicago, Illinois, and currently work at York Community High School. Stephanie also serves as the sports medicine program director and helps manage other sports medicine contracts around the Chicago-land area.