Major studies underway on sports-related concussions

SOECharlesHallmansquareThe NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) are now partners on a three-year research project on concussions and head injuries in college sport. “I believe this project will be the game changer,” says NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline of the $30 million study that began last fall.

Over 37,000 student-athletes in men’s and women’s contact sports from 15 schools,

Rashida Beal (l) and Simone Kolander
Rashida Beal (l) and Simone Kolander

the five biggest football conferences, the four service academies and the Ivy League are participating in the project, which includes physical exams, head sensors, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies and biogenetic markers.

The data obtained will establish a history of concussion, risks and treatment, and also will be beneficial to both athletes and soldiers.

Last summer, the NCAA Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports Committee requested that health and safety be considered in every on-field rules change, even if the main reason is ensure fairness.

“I think there is a lot of conversation around the issue on how we manage concussions that occur in athletic competition,” noted University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler last week in an MSR phone interview. He says the issue “will continue to be one that everybody involved in college athletics will be looking at.”

According to NCAA concussion data from 2004-13, women athletes suffer more concussions (per 1,000 games) than men in college sports other than men’s hockey: soccer (2.10 women, 0.96 men), lacrosse (1.24 women, 0.98 men), basketball (1.03 women, 0.47 men), softball/baseball (0.59 women, 0.11 men) and hockey (1.69 women, 2.38 men).

Gopher soccer players Simone Kolander and Rashida Beal both admitted that they don’t worry about the possibility of getting a concussion while playing. “There’s a risk in every sport that you play,” says Kolander. “You can’t think about that when playing. It’s just being smart about it.”

“And the best you can do is hope you don’t. If we do, we have a great staff to help us get through it,” adds Beal.

Both players say they have confidence in the school’s athletic medicine group. “Our staff is really aware of what’s going on. They are up to date with treatments and very careful,” says Kolander.

This school year, 13 Minneapolis and St. Paul public high schools received a $50,000 grant from the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL last fall to have certified trainers at practices as well as sporting contests.

All 50 U.S. states have passed a student-athlete concussion law, which requires any player suspected of a concussion to be immediately removed from competition and obtain medical clearance from a doctor or medical specialist before returning to action. Only “an Appropriate Health Care Professional” — an individual who is licensed to provide medical attention — can clear a player to return to play in Minnesota, says the Minnesota State High School League concussion rule.

Minnesota requires a minimum five days for a player who suffered a concussion before he or she can return to play, says registered athletic trainer Naga Rumicho, who works with Minneapolis South and Minneapolis Henry players. He says that prep coaches are now more aware of concussion symptoms and “that’s helping to protect the athlete.”

The NCAA-DOD concussion project is one of several similar studies already in progress:  the University of North Carolina and Medical College of Wisconsin received a $400,000 grant in 2013 from the NCAA to study the long-term effects of head injuries in college athletics.  Virginia Tech football players since 2003 have worn sensors in their helmets to measure the number and severity of collisions during games. Hard hits trigger a sideline computer that alerts trainers to check the player for concussions.

Stanford has installed high-speed cameras at football practices for researchers to study on-field collisions. UCLA’s neurosurgery department at the David Geffen School of Medicine last spring received a $10 million donation from New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch to develop “an age-appropriate concussion evaluation tool.” School officials calls Tisch’s donation the largest individual gift ever given to a medical center to study concussions.

“We need to treat [concussion] like an ACL injury,” concludes Hainline.

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