Preventing Youth Sports Concussions

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A new way of treating concussions in young athletes is catching on with a lot of Colorado schools. And it relies less on doctors than the people a young athlete sees every day: parents, teachers and coaches.

The Denver psychologist who came up with the system says, schools are hungry for guidance in helping kids recover from concussions. Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney has more.

WHITNEY: Concussions are suddenly high profile. Once largely ignored by professional sports, this year they’re the talk of the National Football League.
During one recently televised game, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas brought up new research that’s revealing the long-term consequences of concussions.

COSTAS: especially repeat concussions and subsequent problems with dementia, depression, early onset alzheimers, an entire array of serious medical problems.

WHITNEY: When parents hear things like that, they worry about their kids playing school sports.

Especially after a new study this fall said adolescent sports concussions are twice as common as previously believed. Parents want to know everything about preventing and treating concussions in their kids.

MCAVOY: (in school auditorium) We’re happy to bring to you both a program tonight, which we will cover...

WHITNEY: This panel of concussion experts drew about 30 parents to Cherry Creek High School in Denver on a recent weeknight.
They heard that one of the best ways to prevent concussions is to make sure a kid who’s already had one is fully recovered before letting them play again. And “fully recovered” means more than just sitting an athlete out of sports for a couple of weeks.

MCAVOY: Just simply saying, “rest,” is not enough guidance.

WHITNEY: Karen McAvoy is a psychologist with Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. She’s been researching concussions in young athletes for years.
She says the best treatment is creating a care team that includes, parents, coaches and teachers.

MCAVOY: where everybody knows what they need to be watching in terms of symptoms, and you engage the student to be part of monitoring, reporting and tracking symptoms, to know if symptoms are getting better or getting worse. that’s the only way we know that a concussion is resolving.

WHITNEY: That’s why it’s important that people outside a student’s sport are aware they’re recovering from a concussion. McAvoy says a student might appear ready to a coach before they really are, or might even try to mask their symptoms so they don’t miss a big game.

MCAVOY: you know that when they come in and say to the coach, no, I have no symptoms, I’m good to go, coach, and yet they put their head down in class and the teacher’s like, y’know, he’s just not up to par, that’s how you begin to catch some of these discrepancies.

WHITNEY: McAvoy calls her team approach “REAP,” that’s an acronym for Reduce, Educate Accommodate and Pace.
Reduce and accommodate mean not just reducing sports practice and playing time, it also means accommodations in the classroom. Brain-injured students shouldn’t be asked to carry a full academic load, McAvoy says.

MCAVOY: We might, in the past, pull kids out of play, but we were still letting them go to triganomitry and take a big test.

WHITNEY: That’s where the “pace” part of REAP comes in. Students are given progressively harder assignments over time as their brains recover. It’s a lot like letting an injured athlete practice a little more every day, until they’re fully recovered and ready to go back in the game.

SOUND - McAvoy on PA

WHITNEY: Back at the concussion forum at Cherry Creek high school, parent Monica Hughso says she likes the idea of teams monitoring kids with concussions. She says there needs to be a check on over-eager young athletes and coaches.

Hughso: especially in a district where things are highly competitive, and we’re always bound for state championships, etc, etc, kids are pushed, and they’re pushed to excel and sometimes things happen.

TRACK 10: In 2004 a freshman at Cherry Creek’s Grandview high school died from concussion-related complications while playing in a school football game. The memory of that student, Jake Snakenberg, is still fresh among coaches all over Colorado.

Cherry Creek schools have adopted REAP as official policy for handling concussions. McAvoy, who wrote it, has since consulted with more than a dozen other school districts. She does it for free, and says there’s strong demand for training around concussions.