The increased prevalence of ImPACT reflects growing public unease about the state of our kids’ gray matter. News stories about brain-damaged former NFL football players and reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, where 200,000 U.S. service members have suffered head injuries over the past decade, have also raised concerns about concussions, which almost seem routine in some sports.
As research intensifies, scientists seem to be finding evidence of brain injury after apparently benign concussions. At Washington Hospital Center, researchers recently conducted MRI scans on 100 consecutive patients admitted for concussion, which is usually defined as a blow to the head that shakes the brain inside the skull and causes a variety of cognitive and other symptoms, such as difficulty thinking clearly, headaches, dizziness and mood changes. They found that roughly a third had evidence of damage to brain tissue, Lawrence Latour of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reported last month at a military conference on traumatic brain injury.
In the past two years, 33 states and the District have passed laws requiring medical clearance of concussed athletes, says Jean Rickerson of Sequim, Wash., who started a group advocating for such laws after her son, a high school quarterback, suffered a serious concussion in 2008. While the laws don’t explicitly require baseline testing, it is often recommended by specialists.
“We don’t want crippled 13-year-olds because they were put back into a sporting event they should have been left out of,” says David Milzman, an emergency physician at Washington Hospital Center who has led the introduction of ImPACT at area schools. “It’s not that complicated. Enough of this ‘Shake it off, kid,’ stuff.”
Not much can be done
Not much can be done to treat concussion, other than rest, regardless of the severity. But it’s important to keep athletes from playing while concussed, mainly to prevent “second impact syndrome” — rare instances of severe brain damage sustained while a person is healing from initial injuries.
Jon Almquist, who is in charge of athletic training for Fairfax County school athletics and began using neuro-
psychological tests in 2004, says there’s also evidence that kids who have suffered even mild concussions recover more slowly if they return to sports too quickly.
“We’ll get kids who come to a neurologist a week after getting a hit saying they’re having headaches. The doctor asks them when they stopped playing, and they say, ‘I’m still playing.’ If they’d been rested after the concussion, the headaches might have disappeared sooner and they wouldn’t have been stumbling through school for a week.”