Concussion program at WMHS receives favorable reviews after first year

As Watertown-Mayer High School’s concussion management program enters its second year, the school’s athletic trainer says the program is doing what it is designed to do and is generally receiving positive reviews.
The ImPACT Concussion Management program, the same one used by high schools, colleges and pro teams around the country, was implemented at Watertown-Mayer for the first time last school year. The program, which makes use of a computerized test that measures an athlete’s level of cognitive functioning, was used during the recovery process for all 11 Watertown-Mayer athletes that suffered concussions last year.

The test is not used to diagnose or treat concussions, but rather, to determine when an athlete is ready to return to action. The scores from an athlete’s baseline test, which is taken before the season, are compared to the athlete’s scores following the concussion. Only when the score is similar to the preseason level is an athlete allowed to return to action, although the athlete still needs to get final clearance from a doctor.

“(The test) is just another tool to work with physicians that makes it way easier to know when they’re ready to return,” said Sandy Hanson of Ridgeview Sports Medicine, who is also the athletic trainer for Watertown-Mayer. “It’s not like we can see what’s going on inside their head. (Head injuries) are not like other injuries where you can look at the X-ray and see that the bone is still broken. This just makes it easier to tell when they can go back.”

While most people associate concussions with football — especially because of the focus the NFL has placed on the issue in recent years — the reality is that concussions are an issue in just about every sport. Of the 11 concussions last year, Hanson said they were also seen in girls’ basketball, soccer and cross country. Wrestling, hockey and even gymnastics can also be prone to concussions.

Hanson said the new program was especially valuable last year because on numerous occasions, athletes who believed they were ready to return to action and appeared symptom free actually were not ready to play. In those cases, the test results from the post-concussion test still were not close enough to the baseline results. If the school did not have the program in place, those athletes may have been cleared to return.

Returning too soon is problematic because it can cause numerous problems. The likelihood of a second concussion is greatly increased, and athletes can develop post concussion syndrome, where the symptoms persist for long periods of time, something that has been becoming more and more common for professional athletes.

“If they end up coming back too early thinking they’re ready to go and then get another hit, those results start stacking up against each other, and it makes it even harder to come back,” Hanson said.

Without the ImPACT program in place, however, Hanson said it could be tough to keep high school athletes off the field following a concussion. Hanson said the general mentality is to play through pain, get back to action as soon as possible and be there to help the team. Players also are often concerned about losing playing time once they return from the injury, or reduced conditioning and endurance while they are away.

Hanson said having the ImPACT program in place essentially protects the kids from themselves in many cases, taking any sort of decision or influence out of their hands.

“Once they’re done with the tests, those results come back into the computer immediately, and as soon as they’re done with the test, I can show them, here’s what you did for scores before the season, and here’s what you just did,” Hanson said. “It’s important to be able to show them that they may feel great, but they’re still not ready to return yet.”

While the athletes are usually itching to return as soon as possible, Hanson said feedback from most parents has been positive. While some have questioned whether or not their child really has suffered a concussion, she said most are appreciative of the effort to protect their children from further injuries.

“The parents are grateful that somebody is looking out for their kids,” Hanson said. “They realize this is for their long term health.”

The concussion test that students take is valid for two years, meaning those athletes who took the test prior to last season did not need to take it again this year. However, a new batch of athletes that had not yet taken the test gathered to take the test at the school last month.
The test is free to Watertown-Mayer athletes, but can be taken by anyone older than 10 years old at Ridgeview Clinics for $5. Hanson said any number of types of people take the test, because concussions can happen from something as simple as slipping on the ice or falling off a horse.

“It’s a good tool for anybody that’s active to come in and take,” Hanson said.