Despite the flurry of news about NFL lawsuits over concussions, the problem affects far more athletes at the high school and junior high school level, according to the federal government statistics. In 2009 alone, nearly 250,000 youth ages 19 or younger were treated in emergency rooms for sports and recreation-related injuries that included concussions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2001 and 2009, the rate of such visits rose 57 percent. Concussions occur when the brain is shaken violently against the skull.
Although concussions are the most common brain injury, widespread awareness and concern about this issue in the world of student athletics is fairly recent. But it is especially relevant for Black communities, particularly young men most likely to die from traumatic brain injuries, according to the CDC. And according to data from research nonprofit, Child Trends, 50 to 60 percent of Black American high schoolers were on a sports team in 2011. In severe or untreated cases, they can cause brain damage, seizures, emotional distress, and death—in fact the CDC estimates that 5.3 million U.S. citizens are living with disability as a result of a traumatic brain injury (or TBI, an umbrella term that includes concussions).
“From an athletic trainer perspective concussions have always been a big concern. Coaches seemed to think that injuries increased because [athletic trainers] were there, but really it’s that awareness is increased,” says Jennifer Rheeling, a veteran athletic trainer in D.C. Public Schools and chair of the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee for the D.C. State Athletic Association. “In the last five years particularly with the NFL starting to talk about it, and the lawsuits, has helped immensely now that people get it on a mainstream level. What they thought was just getting their bell rung was really a concussion.”
On the most diligent and well-resourced student teams, players take baseline tests—a battery of motor skill drills and survey questions to record their individual peak cognitive health—and have athletic trainers who check for signs of decline. If a concussion is suspected, a player does another test to compare those results to his or her baseline. The ImPACT Concussion Management program is currently the program of record for these tests among school athletic programs. But according to Dr. Vernon Williams, neurologist and medical director of the Sports Concussion Institute, a lack of access to care compounds the (now fading) problem of awareness.
ImPACT, for example, costs a minimum of $400 per year for 100 baseline tests and 15 post-injury tests for one school. Meanwhile, many schools and school districts, largely populated by Black and brown children, routinely have to make cuts to balance their budget. “We have coaches who understand the need, but they have different resources. For example, we know baseline testing for people in contact collision sports can help evaluate when people get injured,” Dr. Williams explains. “But it’s uncommon for people to have access to state-of-the-art baseline testing. Players, school systems, and parents don’t have access to those funds. But we can still implement treatment using creative measures.”
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