DC public schools head off student-athlete brain injury

School system uses informed data, proven procedures and local clinics to prevent and mitigate high school athletic concussions

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Concussions are some of the best-known types of head injury that occur in sports. The result of a sudden impact which exerts force on the brain and leads to temporary impairment or loss of consciousness, concussions can affect the brain even later in life — especially if they happen while the victim is young, according to the Center for Disease Control.

“At ages 13-18, their brains are still forming and developing, and so their brains are at more risk than an adult’s,” said Jamila Watson, lead athletic trainer for D.C. public schools. Watson, who’s responsible for nearly 3,000 student-athletes, oversees sports medicine for public schools in Washington.

Health effects

The effects of a concussion or other traumatic brain injuries vary from person to person.

“We’ve had some kids who sustained one at the beginning and been out for months,” Watson said. “It all depends on the athlete and severity of the concussion.”

The side effects, which include inability to concentrate, light sensitivity, sensitivity to noise and dizziness, indicates that the brain is still healing. Secondary impacts, while the brain is still on the mend, can complicate the problem, said Watson, even resulting in death.

“If you feel dizzy, you need to report it to an athletic trainer,” Watson said. Concussions are the second most common source of traumatic brain injuries to high schoolers, with an estimated 300,000 a year, fewer only than car crashes, according to the Journal of Athletic Training.

Assessing the damage

At the beginning of every season, student-athletes take a baseline function test, the same used by the NBA and NFL, recommended by the CDC. This is so trainers have a standard to compare neurological damage against if a student-athlete is suspected to have sustained a concussion, Watson said.

D.C. public schools, which has maintained full-time athletic trainers since 1991, has a five-day policy that gradually phases student-athletes back into play if the symptoms have abated and a trainer signs off on it. The five-day period is designed to give trainers, parents, and athletes sufficient time to assess if the concussion has abated without lasting damage.

Not every injury goes away, Watson said.

Some student-athletes who sustain concussions are affected worse than others, and take longer to heal. Difficulty focusing is one of the symptoms of a concussion and if a student-athlete can’t take part in school, they’re also not allowed to play sports, Watson said.

Dealing with the long term

D.C. public schools recommend that student-athletes go to the Safe Concussion Outcome Recovery & Education clinic, which is part of the Children’s National Medical Center in the metro area. Watson said the program is unique since it focuses on adolescent traumatic brain injuries.

The clinic has worked with D.C. public schools for eight years, Watson said. The school system has benefited from the clinic’s close location; its proximity to D.C. that has allowed many student-athletes to avail themselves of the clinic’s specialist services where they might not have otherwise the chance.

Other avenues of attack

Athletic trainers are some of the best-equipped individuals to handle traumatic brain injuries, Watson said, but they can’t follow children around all the time. In light of that, D.C. public schools took the CDC guidelines and established a program aimed at dealing with school-age concussions by targeting different groups.

All coaches take nationally mandated training in order to participate in high school sports to certify that they know the causes and signs of a traumatic brain injury. This is so that they can recognize symptoms early enough to take a student-athlete aside and get them treatment, before they accidentally aggravate the injury or inflict a secondary concussion.

All parents fill out a form and get a brief familiarization at the beginning of a sports season. Parents are the ones most likely to see marked changes in a student-athlete’s behavior or personality, and the school does its best to equip them to get their children the help they need, according to the CDC.

“We’re trying to have our athletes police each other. Be the best teammate you can be.”

Student-athletes are themselves briefed on concussions and symptoms, baselined tested and taken off the field if it looks like they’ve sustained one. They’re also encouraged to look out their own.

“We’re trying to have our athletes police each other,” said Watson. “Be the best teammate you can be.”

Lastly, the D.C. public school system is looking to expand its network of athletic trainers. According to Watson, every high school with a football team has a dedicated full-time athletic trainer, and other schools have trainers assigned on a roving basis.

Assessment

Last school year, the D.C. public school system had 66 concussions, or roughly 2 percent of the student-athletes.

It’s not perfect, Watson said, but it is improving steadily.

Increased seriousness given to head injuries and increased awareness of the long-term neurological effects of traumatic brain injuries from the NFL and battlefield injuries mean that the school system and medical professionals take concussions more gravely than ever, Watson said.

The D.C. public school system will keep expanding its network of athletic trainers, however, “athletic trainers are essential to athletics,” Watson said. “Schools should put that as part of the priorities, like coaches and referees.”

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