Recreation departments proactive on concussions


Marty Gordon

Editor’s note: This is part one in a series of stories on concussions in football and how local kids are being affected.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that emergency room visits for concussions in kids ages eight to 13 have almost doubled in the past five years, and a lot of the injuries are associated with sports.

The medical definition of a concussion is a brain injury that may be caused by a blow to the head, face, neck or elsewhere in the body. The injury can also result from hitting a hard surface such as the ground, ice or floor.

It’s almost impossible to completely eliminate the risk of brain injuries in sports, but researchers say the goal should be to minimize the harm.

In most instances, people don’t want to even talk about the issue, but it is a real concern. The key, according to most recreation departments in our area, is to change the way we play the game and take a more proactive approach in dealing with the problem.

Radford’s Greg Holbrook is a member of a larger group that encompasses the New River Valley and annually agrees on the rules that the youth league follows.

“We, all, agree upon policies for practice and teaching youngsters the right way to tackle and participate in football games. That’s an ongoing effort,” he said.

Brad Epperley, the director of the Christiansburg Recreation Department, said his department proactively approaches the topic of concussions to make sure coaches, officials, parents and players are aware of the signs and symptoms and know what to do if those symptoms are present.

“Information of contraindicated drills that have been part of football in the past and should no longer be used, such as Bull in the Ring, Oklahoma and Boards, are part of this proactive prevention process. It is also recommended that we have no full-speed, head-on or tackling drills in which players line up more than three yards apart. Teaching proper techniques is crucial. Always block and tackle with your head up. See what you hit,” he said.

The youth league rules also limit the amount of contact during practices. Currently, contact is only allowed during 50 percent of the practice. Years ago, there simply was no real restrictions on the amount of contact in practices. With the changes, coaches now have time to teach fundamentals and proper techniques.

Equipment especially helmets plays a major role in the prevention of any type of football injuries.

All the recreation departments in Montgomery County and Radford send their youth helmets off yearly to be reconditioning and recertified prior to the next football season. Typically, during this process the company will clean, sanitize, inspect and make any needed repairs.

Additionally, all the helmets must receive the NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) Certification. Once the helmet is returned and it doesn’t pass the standards requirement, it is taken out of circulation.

Epperley pointed out many of the local recreation youth teams have also worked with researchers at Virginia Tech to analysis movement during practice and games.

“Currently, there is a lot of research being done on youth helmets, and Dr. Stephan Duma – housed at Virginia Tech – is one of the lead researchers in the country. Many local teams in the New River Valley have been part of Dr. Duma’s ongoing helmet studies,” he said.

That Tech connection has also played a major role in educating coaches and parents over the past few years. Both Radford and Christiansburg have held and still hold informative sessions with members of the Hokie training staff to discuss this subject.

Each recreation department has also established a clear concussion policy that states when in doubt, sit them out.

The policy states: “Any participant with a concussion should be medically cleared by an appropriate healthcare professional prior to resuming participation in any practice or league play. This clearance shall be in the form of a written letter/Head Injury Referral Form signed by the healthcare professional. One copy must be supplied to the Town of Christiansburg Department of Parks and Recreation and one must be supplied to the head coach prior to any return to play. The formulation of gradual return to play protocol should be a part of the medical clearance. NOTE: Athletes with continued concussion symptoms are at significant risk for recurrent, cumulative and even catastrophic consequences of a second concussive injury. Such risks are minimized if the athlete is allowed time to recover from the concussion and return to play decisions are carefully made. No athlete should return-to-sport or other at-risk participation when symptoms of concussion are present and recovery is ongoing.”

The symptoms of a concussion can include a headache, nausea, balance problems or dizziness, double or blurry vision, sensitively to light or noise, sluggish feeling, memory problems and confusion.

The key, according to Epperley, is to have everyone including parents on the same page in what to look for when it comes to possible concussions, and he knows in some cases the information will be a little scary.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released statistics that there were 3.5 million non-sports related concussions (90.2%), while there were 380,000 (9.8%) sports-related concussions. So, as you can imagine, the goal is not to scare parents, but more importantly, to help make them aware of the risks and prepare them and their coaches with proper preventative measures to help decrease the instances of sports-related concussions,” he said.

The Christiansburg Recreation Department will hold a concussion awareness presentation on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the recreation center. Parents are invited to attend.

“We are very fortunate to live in an area with experts and professionals that are willing to help our Youth Sports Programs. Mike Goforth, Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at Virginia Tech, and his staff have been instrumental in providing up-to-date information and proactive practices to help with concussion awareness, and Dr. Stephan Duma and his staff are providing research that will ultimately change helmet safety for youth football across the country,” Epperely concluded.

(In Part 2, we will examine the steps high schools and colleges across the country are taking as we take the game to the next level. We will also examine how Virginia Tech has become a world leader on the subject.)