Alex Podlogar

Thinking outside the pressbox

Concussions getting a closer look in area high schools

Published in The Sanford Herald on January 17, 2010

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Aaron Norris was out there on the pitch, only he didn’t know it.

He does remember going up into the air, maybe for the ball. He remembers getting hit. Remembers his feet going out from under him and the horizon flipping. He remembers hitting the ground.

He remembers nothing after that.

Ask him what day it happened. He can’t tell you. Ask him what month it happened. He can’t tell you. Ask him how far into the season it happened. He can’t tell you.

“I only remember what people tell me,” he says.

Later, Norris, a junior and the leading scorer for the Grace Christian soccer team, was told he had a concussion. At first, though, it was hard to tell just how badly he was hurt. After blacking out after the hit, a wobbly Norris came out of the game (it was on Sept. 15 and against Gospel Light), only to try to return after halftime.

That’s when things went haywire.

Or so he’s told.

“I was standing around, I guess, and people tell me that I was just kind of walking around and talking to myself,” Norris said. “The ball came toward me one time, and I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Norris was immediately pulled from the game — for good this time.  The next morning he experienced staggering headaches, his eyes were dilated, and he couldn’t focus his vision on faraway objects. This went on for a couple of days.

Then he went back to school.

“I remember being in math class and looking down at the numbers, and it was like they had been switched around on me or something,” he said. “It looked like something different. It’s hard to explain.”

And this was, Norris was told, only a slight concussion.

RAPID RISE AND TREATMENT

Norris’ story rings true for many athletes today. While concussions have become the health topic du jour of the NFL this season, they are nothing new.

But the frequency with which they are being reported and diagnosed is. Ten years ago, the Center for Disease Control reported that there were just 62,000 cases of concussions in American high school sports annually. In 2009, that number was 300,000. Some reports have the overall figure dramatically higher, with possibly as many as 1.6-3.8 million concussions occurring in the United States on an annual basis.

In Lee County, there is anecdotal evidence of at least five concussions — from just this fall sports season. Just how many have been diagnosed in local athletes is impossible to know. Lee County High School Athletic Director and head trainer Steve Womack doesn’t reveal names, citing the students’ right to privacy, but he’s well-versed in the potentially catastrophic affects concussions can cause athletes.

It’s why he pushed for the funding to bring the ImPACT Concussion Management Program to Lee County, one of the first high schools in North Carolina to implement the testing program. Yellow Jackets student-athletes are required to take a serious of tests on the online program before the season begins, and the program stores the results. If a concussion is suspected, a player retakes the series of exams, and the numbers are compared. It’s a qualitative tool to help officials know when a player is recovered from the lingering affects of concussions or head injuries.

“It’s amazing,” Womack said. “The first thing you always do is to ask the player how he feels. Only he can tell you that. But we had a player tell us that he was feeling fine, that he was better. But when we had him take the test 10 days after suffering the concussion, there was a 30-point differential from his pre-test. After that, the player said that yes, he was still feeling symptoms.

“Players always want to get back onto the field, and sometimes it can be difficult to tell when they are really OK. But with this program, and when he was showed the numbers, he fessed up.”

And that’s important. Studies show that players who suffer a concussion are more likely to suffer a second one if they return too soon. A Canadian study published in a 2007 issue of Pediatrics revealed that children who received emergency room treatment for head injury were nearly twice as likely to suffer another head injury in the next six months than children who initially visited the ER for a non-head related injury.

While the range of the severity of concussions can be categorized with a grading system, second-impact concussions have been known to cause, in the most extreme cases, death.

“It can happen every rapidly,” says Womack. “In five minutes, you can die.”

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

With concussions reaching the front pages — the NFL is considering coming up with a detailed gameplan for how to treat players who suffer concussions, complete with practice and playing restrictions — it wasn’t always that way. When Womack was in his formative years as a trainer three decades ago, a player was expected to jump right back up and head for the huddle after being leveled on the football field.

“Back in the day, we talked about getting your ‘bell rung,’” recalls Womack. “People would say, ‘Ding!’ Then they’d laugh about it and go back into the game.”

While Norris gave it a go 30 years later, once Southern Lee football player Colby Thornton caught a helmet-to-helmet hit on the practice field on October, the trainer rushed over, took Thornton off the field and went through a litany of questions.

“They’re all the typical questions you hear about,” says Cavaliers football coach Eric Puryear. “Where are you? What day is it? And you really do see kids who don’t know where they are. You have to be so careful because concussions affect younger kids more than adults.”

Southern Lee was careful with Thornton, even though his concussion was also ruled as slight. Still, it was enough for Thornton to know something wasn’t quite right.

“I guess I just got hit in the right spot, but it was helmet-to-helmet,” he recalls. “But it felt like my whole body was ringing.”

It got worse when he tried to stand up. And when the easiest questions of his life started coming at him, Thornton had trouble concentrating.

“I tried to walk it off, but I had to take a knee,” he says. “The trainer came over and was asking me questions, but I was slow to respond. Everything was real slow. It was like everything was in slow motion.”

Because of a rule implemented by the N.C. High School Athletic Association a year ago, Thornton was forced to sit out a week after the concussion. It’s just one more indication that concussions have become a serious issue in sports at every level.

“Think about it,” Womack says, “a concussion is a brain injury. It can cause swelling of the brain, and inside the skull, there’s nowhere for that swelling to go. This is as serious as it gets.”

But it’s hard to keep a player down for long. Norris is a member of the Crusaders varsity basketball team this winter, and as a potential All-State performer next year, he’ll be counted on to provide his scoring bursts for a state championship contender next season.

Still, the hit — if not the memory of that hit — has Norris grounded.

“Next year it might affect my heading game,” he says. “I might not try to head the ball as much.

“I know it can happen again.”

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February 3, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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