Concussions are one of the most common injuries affecting football players. The Centers for Disease Control has put the number of concussions occurring in high school football players at around two million per year.
In part of what is now becoming a perennial discussion, parents, former athletes, schools and lawmakers are questioning what can be done about lowering the number of head injuries that occur in contact sports like football. Lawsuits have been filed by former athletes at all levels of play from professional to high school accusing football programs of not advising them of long-term effects concussions may have. In addition, numerous states have enacted legislation to prevent concussions in young players.
Jeremy Eusea, athletic trainer at Hahnville High School, said confirmed concussions happen once or twice a year at his school, but unconfirmed concussions are likely more common and are a problem because students do not report them.
"Headache is the top symptom of a concussion," Eusea said. "There is nothing right now to measure a headache, so we have to go off the kids."
He said concussions go unreported for a few reasons.
"Kids are uneducated. They don’t know what to tell us," Eusea said. "Some kids are smart enough that they don’t tell anyone they have headaches because they don’t want to miss game time or practice."
Eusea said a video was made about a Texas teen who underwent multiple brain surgeries due to sports related concussions and he would like it to become required viewing for students who want to participate in contact sports.
"It’s a scare tactic that needs to be done," Eusea said.
In 2011, Louisiana passed a law that requires all school systems to create concussion-prevention programs.
Willie Wise, coordinator of physical plant services and athletics for St. Charles Parish Public Schools, said the law is pretty simple.
"It basically requires that you educate your coaches on what a concussion is–it’s a brain injury is what it is. That’s the bottom line," Wise said.
Wise said the prevalence of concussions in high school football players came to his attention a few years ago when he attended a conference. After attending the conference, he created a program for St. Charles Public Schools before it was required by law.
"I said this is something we’ve got to look at and something I would like for us to implement," Wise said.
Part of that program requires students who participate in contact sports to take a test in their freshman year and again in their junior year.
"It tests memory, reaction time, speed and concentration. It has nothing to do with IQ," Wise said. "So you have a baseline now on how their brain operates according to those tests."
Wise said in the incident of a concussion students are retested and if they are found to be below their baseline they are sidelined for a period of time.
"We also have our team doctors involved in assessing and monitoring the recovery from a concussion," Wise said. "So they’re aware and they’re watching these students as well."
According to school documents, it is up to students who think they are injured to let the coach or one of the school’s personal trainers know, but Wise said school personnel are also on the lookout.
"All of the sudden you come off from a game and you are wobbly, the trainer looks at you and assesses ‘we have a possible concussion here, most likely we’re holding them off coach,’" Wise said. "Kids will hide it because they don’t want to not play. That becomes an issue that we certainly want to address and to handle."
Eusea said the most common concussion occurs from a blow to the jaw and that a good mouthpiece can do a lot to prevent injuries.
"A lot of high school kids are uneducated. The first thing they do is cut the backs off of their mouthpieces because they don’t like them," Eusea said. "If they were actually to have a proper-fitting mouth piece they’d save their brain a little bit because those forces would be displaced."
A new mouthpiece was invented a few years ago that form fits to player’s mouth and has shown a much lower incidence of concussions, however, the pieces are custom made by orthodontists at a large expense and are not widespread in use.
Even though custom mouthpieces may be out of the price range of most students and schools, Wise said improvements in other equipment and athlete conditioning have helped.
"A lot of kids are bigger, stronger, faster, quicker and when they hit, and that hit comes on, it’s coming on," Wise said. "There’s times I’ve seen kids just get whacked good and being in condition, being safe and the safety factor of all the equipment you just go ‘wow’ and they get right back up."
Wise, who formerly coached football and other sports for over a decade, said despite the dangers inherent in contact sports like football there are a lot of benefits. He said being involved in sports as a youth had a huge impact on his life.
"A couple of coaches were interested in me and all I was going to be doing was working construction after high school," Wise said. "But you know what? They steered me some other way because they saw potential in me. They stuck with me and that’s what the intrinsic value a coach has towards his student athletes."
Similarly, Eusea was a former athlete whose career was guided by his involvement in sports, but in a different way.
"When I was growing up I got knocked out. I was unconscious for a good five minutes and found myself on the sideline," Eusea said. "That’s when I got interested in sports medicine because it was a really scary moment. When you don’t know where you are for five minutes it starts to really alarm you."