Sept. 3, 2013 06:00

Amid new concerns, more measures are in place to protect student athletes from the devastating effects of concussions.

Josh Williford won‘t play football again. Concussions, this LSU guard knows, can be career enders. But even more important, they can be life changers when not treated properly.

After two serious concussions (one that left him out cold for five minutes), it was announced in late August that the promising player won‘t return to the field. Ever. It is but one face in a growing group of athletes bringing the dangers of concussions to the forefront.

What was once considered simply part of the hard-hitting sport has become the sharp focus of scrutiny as schools put measures in place to protect athletes, worried parents consider keeping their kids off the field, and experts like Tommy Dean - the athletic trainer heading Concussion Solutions in Lafayette - work to get accurate information about what to look for on the field.

Photo by Robin May  
 Tommy Dean  

Addressing the issue at an early age is long overdue, evidenced by a Philadelphia federal judge‘s Aug. 29 announcement that the NFL and more than 4,500 former players want to resolve a rash of concussion-related lawsuits by agreeing to a $765 million settlement to pay for medical exams, concussion-related compensation and medical research.

"There is an inherent risk with everything we do. People ask as a parent will I let my kid play football. I tell parents to arm themselves with the facts and make an informed decision," he says.

Those facts are that damage done to the brain during a concussion can last for decades, that a concussion can and does happen even if you maintain consciousness, nothing fully protects from concussion, and a clear head doesn‘t mean you‘re ready for game time.

"We‘ve learned a lot in recent years," says Dr. Stephanie Aldret, who specializes in family and sports medicine and works with

Concussion Solutions. "We have much more information and knowledge about what a concussion is and the long-term results."
She says it‘s a common misconception that because a parent endured concussions in his youth without evidence of harm his own kids will be fine. And that someone has to be unconscious to suffer a concussion.

"The old school thought was that unless you‘re knocked out you don‘t have a concussion. There are forms of concussion like seeing stars. Those are significant hits," she says - hits that mean it‘s time to leave the field and seek evaluation. But getting back in the game after a concussion is perhaps the greatest area of question when it comes to concussions. Schools like St. Thomas More have protocols in place to ensure the decision to return comes only from a doctor.

That school and others, including the Lafayette Parish School System, perform baseline tests on students preseason. STM Athletic Director Kim Broussard says once a player suffers a concussion, he is evaluated.

"Anytime somebody gets a hit there‘s a grave concern. It‘s serious. We send them to a doctor and they can approve when they can return to play," Broussard says.

Their program has been implemented during the last two years with students in football and soccer (male and female) getting the baseline testing now as the highest risk group. In fact, Broussard says while football gets the lion‘s share of attention in the concussion discussion, it‘s important to take a serious look at soccer with athletes utilizing heading the ball more often in recent years.

"The contact is going head to head," he notes. And without helmets.

Dean‘s company performs baseline tests for athletes in four surrounding parishes and has doctors on hand who are qualified to keep kids safe. Doctors, he says, who understand concussion and its impact are an absolute must. And not all do.

Aldret says it‘s important that parents don‘t simply take a child to the ER, get an MRI and expect to have an assessment of whether they are safe to return to play.

"They need to be evaluated by a specialist, someone who has experience in concussion management," she says. "Not all concussions require a neurologist. But some do."

All concussions do require consideration. It‘s something Bobby Badeaux knows. The LPSS‘ new director of athletics says it‘s a major concern for the parish‘s athletes, and the system takes measures to protect children in every sport it can.

In addition to trainers, it is also working to keep coaches and sponsors informed. Whether it‘s football or cheerleading (pyramids and stunts can be major risk factors), those coaches and sponsors are required to complete courses specializing in concussions.

"You have to be prepared for every aspect," Badeaux says.

Helmets are checked yearly, and officials continue to crack down on the kind of hitting that‘s acceptable. But there are no foolproof ways to stay completely in the clear.

Dean says while parents yearn for that possibility as high profile stories put a face to the problem, there‘s a growing number of gimmicks promising total safety.

"Be careful where you get your facts," Dean warns. "Google isn‘t the answer for everything. There are a lot of scare tactics a lot of gimmicks. There‘s nothing out there that will diagnose a concussion, manage a concussion."

Doing that, he says, requires a team approach from baseline testing to astute, qualified trainers on the field to diligent follow up and doctors experienced in the field.

Time out

Warning signs your child may have a concussion

Thanks to growing research, parents know today that concussions are serious business. Getting your bell rung, seeing stars, even a total knock out isn‘t a right of passage. It‘s an injury. Read on for tips from expert athletic trainer Tommy Dean, head of Concussion Solutions, on what to look for in your child. Symptoms, he notes, can wait hours or days to appear, and no student athlete should hit the field without being evaluated if you suspect a concussion.

1. Memory or concentration problems
This can include repeating themselves and forgetting things they‘ve recently said or done. It may also present as difficulty concentrating or completing tasks or general confusion.
Parents can test this by asking questions about recent events, or asking the child to memorize unrelated words and recall them a few minutes later.

2. Balance problems/dizziness
Does the child seem unsteady? Ask him to stand on one foot, both with eyes closed and open.

3. Severe or worsening headaches
Especially if the pain is sustained and unusually acute. Headaches are common with head injuries.

4. Changes in mood/personality
Sometimes concussed athletes will experience irritability or become agitated more easily; others might be more emotional or anxious. Parents should trust their instincts if they feel the child is not him/herself.

5. Nausea or vomiting/changes in appetite

Lack of appetite or inability to keep food down is a red flag - and should be taken seriously.

6. Sleep disturbances/fatigue
This can manifest in many different ways, ranging from excessive drowsiness and fatigue to insomnia and inability to stay asleep.

7. Sensitivity to light/noise
Does the child seem suddenly averse to bright lights or loud noises? In many cases, a concussed student athlete will need to avoid stimulation to allow the brain time to recover.

8. Double or blurred vision
Any change in vision is reason for concern. Ask your child if they are experiencing any difficulty seeing clearly or at a distance.

9. Slurred speech
This includes slurring words and speaking unusually slowly or with difficulty.

10. Loss of consciousness
Any loss of consciousness at all is a major warning sign, and indicates that the child should be seen by a doctor.

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