ST. MARYS — If awareness of head injuries had been as focused six years ago as it is now, parent and tennis coach Brice Brenneman says he might have worried more about the three sports concussions his son suffered while in high school.
“The first one was a routine heading in soccer,” Brenneman said. “He came home, got sick, fell asleep. The first one the doctors treated as a fluke.”
The second and third concussions were treated more seriously, however, leading doctors to recommend he wear a foam padded helmet to play sports.
What the three incidents had in common was that heading a ball or colliding with a player are routine incidents in sports. Most players head a ball and never have a problem. Brenneman wondered, however, if doctors today would have recommended his son stop playing.
“Perhaps today we are more cautious than we were then,” he said.
Awareness of head injuries has increased to the point that three years ago, the Ohio High School Athletic Association began requiring students to have a physician’s permission to return to play or practice after showing symptoms of a concussion.
This year, the Ohio legislature followed suit, passing House Bill 143, making it a law that coaches and referees are responsible for taking students out of games when they show signs of concussion.
The National Federation of High School Associations announced Monday that 700,000 coaches and others involved in high school athletics have taken their course for recognizing concussions in only two years.
According to the Center for Disease Control, concussions are among many traumatic brain injuries young athletes are susceptible to, and can lead to lifelong impairment in memory, behavior, learning and emotions.
During the last decade, emergency treatments for traumatic brain injuries for youth in sports has increased by 60 percent, mostly in bicycling, football, basketball and soccer — rates are highest per athlete in football and girls soccer.
“This is definitely an important topic that’s been generating a lot of interest with increasing concussions,” St. Marys Athletic Director Doug Spencer said.
“Some you just can’t prepare for.”
He said coaches are required to get their sports medicine certification and any new information that comes along, he forwards to those coaches.
In addition, the district goes through a lot of expense to prevent injury. Every helmet costs $200, and every year the district pays $5,000 to re-inspect and recondition the equipment.
One hurdle in tracking how prevalent the injuries are is the lack of a tracking system broken down by sport for how many concussions athletes face each year.
Last year, the OHSAA began keeping track, giving Ohio as a state a look at where athletes are suffering injuries, said Tim Stried, spokesperson for the OHSAA.
What the numbers revealed was that, at least in Ohio, football is not the worst offender when it comes to concussions.
Wrestling had the highest number of concussions at 111, and football came in second at 102. All other sports, statewide, had 25 or less head injuries.
As for why wrestling had so many head injuries, Stried said the cause was undetermined. It could be that wrestlers are getting bigger or stronger, he suggested, or they could be hitting the mat with a lot of force.
Stried said the key to preventing injuries going forward won’t be about legislation, it will be about coaches stressing the fundamentals. In football, that means teaching students to keep their heads up when they tackle.
“We’re also trying to make everyone aware that student needs to come out immediately, whether or not they have a concussion,” Stried said, noting students should only continue play once they are cleared by medical personnel. “Sustaining one (concussion) is not typically life threatening.”
Amy Brown, St. Marys Memorial High School trainer, agreed school officials do everything they can, but not all concussions are preventable or life threatening.
“When we were kids, they’d tell us, ‘Just shake it off,’” she said of the changing regulations. “Now, we know there’s greater risk of problems down the road.”
She said some of what appears to be an increase in concussions is actually probably because of increased awareness of the symptoms, and therefore, more students getting treatment.
Even with proper training, however, recognizing a concussion is tricky. In her time with the school, Brown said she witnessed multiple concussions, but for one softball player, the only symptom was a headache that persisted for weeks.
Other symptoms for players can include lightheadedness, dizziness, visual problems, and “seeing stars.”
As for what might be the next step in preventing concussions, Brown said she doesn’t know what that would be.
“Believe me, if a specific football helmet prevented concussions, everyone would have it,” Brown said.
Brown noted referees and coaches are doing a better job pulling students out of play when they show symptoms, but there’s no way to know when it will happen.
As for Brenneman, his son has no lasting effects despite three concussions, and he said he’s glad his son had the opportunity to play the sports he loved.
“He never did head a ball again, though,” he said.