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Virginia bill protects high school student athletes with head injuries

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; D06

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly has passed legislation that would require high school coaches and others to bench student-athletes who show signs of having suffered concussions until they are cleared for further play by a licensed health professional.

Sponsored by a state senator from Norfolk who is also a pediatric neurologist, the measure comes in response to studies that have shown high school students frequently return to play too soon after suffering concussions and that repeated concussions can have long-term health effects.

The Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found last year that more than 40 percent of high school concussion sufferers return to the field too quickly.

A recent study of retired NFL players showed that players who suffered multiple concussions developed depression and early dementia.

Players who return to play after a concussion risk second-impact syndrome, in which the brain swells, a serious condition that can lead to death. Two high school football players died in North Carolina after suffering concussions in 2008.

Bill sponsor Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk) said he regularly sees high school students who have suffered concussions and has to persuade them not to return immediately to action.

"The common scenario is that they come to my office on a Monday or Tuesday after they've sustained their concussion in Friday's game," he said. "They're trying to get cleared to play on the next Friday. I tell them, 'You have many more games to play, but you only have one brain.' "

Northam said his bill requires that athletes who show signs of head injury be taken immediately out of a game or practice.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is reviewing the bill, his spokeswoman said. Virginia is one of the first states to adopt such legislation -- which passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously -- but two dozen other states are considering similar measures.

Senate Bill 652 also requires local education boards to write guidelines about dealing with concussions for their school divisions, student athletes and parents to review annually.

About three-fourths of young athletes who suffer concussions fully recover within three weeks, said Joel Brenner, director of the sports medicine program at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk. But others need more recovery time. Besides second-impact syndrome, athletes risk post-concussion syndrome, in which they have trouble recovering from effects of their initial injury.

Common symptoms of concussions include headaches, confusion, sensitivity to light or noise, sleep disturbances and problems with memory or concentration.

Ken Tilley, executive director of the Virginia High School League, said coaches and officials will be briefed on the law during mandatory clinics before the start of their sports seasons. The league supported the legislation.

"This raises the visibility and the public awareness of this problem," he said.

Northam said he hopes a law will prevent coaches, parents and students from putting players back on the field before it is medically safe.

"There can be tremendous pressure to return to play," Northam said. "Sometimes it comes from fans or parents or coaches. . . . This will protect our student athletes, and it will protect coaches and school administrators."

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