Fulton Schools Prepare New Ways to Deal with Athlete Head Injuries

The Fulton City School District’s new approach to student athletes who suffer head injuries can be summed up in six words:  When in doubt, hold them out.  It will mean more time on the sideline this year for athletes, as the district takes a much more cautious approach to concussions.

From the club sports level to the National Football League, the issue of concussion injuries is receiving a new focus.  Four students suffered head injuries in Fulton athletics last year, according to the district, but national groups say as much as 85% of all head injuries go undiagnosed because the athlete doesn’t want to admit he’s hurt or the coach doesn’t think the injury was serious.

But concussions pile up on athletes, with each new one causing more damage than the one before.  The NFL is paying attention to the issue because of the growing number of cases of football players who either have died young or suffered permanent brain damage from what’s called post-concussion syndrome.

Fulton intends to use the same head injury assessment program that the NFL is using to try to get a handle on the problem.

District Athletic Director Chris Ells explained that the service will be free for the first year, thanks to the involvement of Dick’s Sporting Goods, which is funding a national rollout of the program.

The program aims to give brain function tests to all student athletes before they begin practices, to establish a baseline.  The test can be given after a suspected head injury to help confirm the severity of the injury.

After any head injury, a team that includes the district athletic trainer, school nurses, teachers, coaches and parents will keep an eye on the athlete for any signs of a lack of progress.  At any such sign, “they take a step back,” Ells said.

It will take up to two weeks to return to competition from a head injury, he explained, because of the new series of milestones that must be accomplished.

First, a student must be free of all concussion symptoms for 7 days and receive medical clearance to return to training.  Then, the student will move through a program of increasing athletic exertion, from light aerobic exercises and sport-specific skills training to non-contact drills to full contact workouts to a return to group practice and games.

The program begins this year with testing for students in the high contact sports of football, soccer, hockey, wrestling and lacrosse.  All other student athletes will begin assessments in the 2012-13 school year.

“By the end of 2012, we will have a baseline on every student,” Ells said.