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Detecting Unseen Head Injuries on the Sidelines

By Jeffrey Hess | Published 29 Nov 2010 09:55am | comments
North West Rankin Cougar football team at work

Some of the best high school football players in Mississippi will compete for a state championship this weekend. Keeping those athletes on the field and in the big game while protecting them from head injuries is a growing concern for both parents and coaches. M-P-B's Jeffrey Hess reports on athletes and coaches who compete to win and a Mississippi doctor trying to find a better way to detect head injuries.

On a cold rainy day, dozens of high school football players for the Northwest Rankin High School Cougars warm up for practice. Among them is Michael Gibbs, who is exactly what you expect from a high school football player. He is 6 foot 2, 290 pounds and a prospect to play for a division 1 college team.

Despite his size, Gibbs has experienced a concussion, on the field.

"I did, it wasn't from football though, I had it from soccer. I had it when I was about 12 in the state tournament. I got kicked in the head. I don't remember much of it but I don't think it felt too good," Gibbs said.

Northwest Rankin High School Athletic Director David Coats has been on the sidelines for 20-years. He's watched concussions go from a normal part of the game to a real concern. His biggest challenge now is getting players to admit they are injured.

"If somebody is staggering a little bit than obviously they have been hit hard. They are times when I feel like when kids may get hit and don't say anything, you have no idea," Coates explained.

Concussion are injuries to the brain, and they can have significant long term consequences. Jackson Orthopedic Surgeon Steve Watts says those brain injuries, especially repeated concussions, can cause severe damage to the brain.

"Problems of the brain including and Alzheimer like disease, a Parkinson's like disease, and even a Lou Gehrig's like disease," Watts said.

Gibbs says he would take him self out of the game if he thought he was hurt. But that's not always the case in the heat of a championship game.

"I know a buddy of mine earlier this season was concussed and he didn't want me to tell anybody. But it was the safe thing to do to tell the trainers and let him get looked at," Gibbs said.

That player was taken out of the game that night. Coaches rely on training staff to evaluate players and put safety first. Although doctors and trainers are not on the sidelines of every sporting event, Coats believes his fellow coaches take the risk seriously. The Mississippi High School Activities Association does not have an enforcement mechanism against coaches who send questionable, but untested, players back into action. But those coaches could face legal responsibility if something happens to that player.
MHSAA Executive Director Doctor Ennis Proctor has started new training for coaches on head injuries.

"The reason for this is because we have had probably more concussion in the last few years than in the past. I don't know...if the size of the players and the quickness of the game has caused this," Procter said.

Coaches for boy's and girl's teams take the course, because Proctor points out that a less talked about problem is concussion among female soccer players.

Proctor says if a school, like Rankin, has a doctor or trainer on the sidelines, they can make a call if a player comes out or goes back into a game.

"And most of these certified trainers have experience in this area. Sometimes they are able to make the decision to and take the responsibility of putting a player back in the game after an injury," Proctor said.

Doctors Watts is one of those sideline doctors. He offers his time to Mississippi high school and college teams free of charge. He uses a list called a Sideline Concussion Assessment Tool, to determine the level of injury.

"Actually something as simple as a little dizziness, a headache, nausea, blurred vision, confusion, just some mental changes that are not quite right, irritability, and a loss of memory," Watts said can indicate a concussion.

But the decision is still the subjective judgment of the doctor, and Watts wants to do one better. He is studying concussions, to figure out how they effect the body. First he measures athletes before the season to get a base line test, then tests them again if he suspects they had a concussion. Watts thinks, that disturbance to the brain causes the heart to beat differently and is working on a machine to detect erratic beats.

"And so if you can measure that veriabilty and put it into an index, it may indicate, by looking at the heart, that the brain has a dysfunction," Watts explained.

After just a few minutes of monitoring, the machine can determine if a player has a head injury. That would take pressure off doctors because they can point to firm evidence of a concussion that players, coaches and parents can see for themselves, in real time, on the sidelines. That can be especially important for teen athletes, like the boys warming up for the Rankin Cougars.

Current guidelines recommend that players stay out of practice and games for a week, but Watts says young brains can take up to three weeks to fully recover from a brain injury.

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North West Rankin Cougar football team at work


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