The law covers a wide range of sports extracurriculars including cheerleading, ultimate Frisbee, and marching band. It applies to public middle and high schools, and any school subject to Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules. Schools are not asked to break down the numbers by individual sports.
In addition to the state’s new reporting mandate, the law also requires schools to provide annual training to students, parents, and staff on how to recognize and respond to head injuries. Injured students must get medical clearance before returning to play, and then must do so gradually. Parents are supposed to notify the school of any head injuries that students get outside of school, and those numbers are also reported to the state.
Reports of sports-related injuries are on the rise among young people nationwide, as medical professionals increasingly warn that repeated concussions can cause lifelong problems if they are ignored, potentially affecting memory, language, and emotions.
“Your brain is who you are and how you interact with the world,” said Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician and researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The issue is if it’s not recognized, potentially their recovery can be hampered to the point that they might not fully recover.”
Earlier this year, the Globe did its own surveys of local high school sports, including football, soccer, ice hockey, and basketball. Those surveys found higher numbers of head injuries in football and girls’ soccer, a trend that meshed with national statistics.
The Globe found 338 head injuries in 26 football and girls’ and boys’ soccer programs, with boys’ soccer reporting the lowest numbers of the three.
In boys’ and girls’ hockey and basketball, the Globe found 72 head injuries across 44 high school sports programs contacted for that earlier survey.
Smith cautioned against comparing schools and said the data released by the state has not yet been checked for accuracy.
“It’s not meant for direct comparison among schools, and the reason for that, as you could probably imagine, is that schools have different-sized student populations and they have different numbers of students participating in school sports activities,” she said.
For example, at least 317 Massachusetts high schools are using ImPACT,a computerized cognitive test that students take before they play so they have a baseline for comparison after a head injury. There is also increased interest in the newest equipment, such as improved football helmets. And Pop Warner declared in June that it would limit contact in football practices, a step that several local high schools, like Newton North high, have also made.
Charlie Stevenson, head coach of the Xaverian football team, said that the increased attention to concussions has affected his coaching. “There is some hitting in practice, but I say we spend more days only doing uppers [upper body workouts] rather than full contact, more emphasis on keeping your head out of the game,’’ he said in an interview. “I feel we’ve always done that and it’s just more an intense focus now.”
O’Brien, the Children’s Hospital physician, is working with a group of doctors who this month broke ground in Waltham on the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, which will offer concussion prevention strategies.
They will study whether strengthening neck muscles, for example, could help cut down on concussions, said O’Brien. And researchers will examine if there are certain risk factors that make athletes more vulnerable to concussion.
DeSisto, the Waltham nurse, said the data collected under the state law could be a great resource to help figure out why concussions happen and how to prevent them. She is working on that as part of a grant from the Department of Public Health. Waltham is one of 80 districts bringing together school officials to talk about a wide range of health issues, including concussions, she said.
Waltham is trying to go above and beyond the law by collecting head injury numbers on all students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, regardless of where the injury took place. And even at the elementary level, school nurses are trying to educate all staff and parents on the importance of recognizing concussion symptoms, she said.
One of the biggest hurdles for recovery at any age is the need for cognitive rest, said the CDC’s Gilchrist.
Parents generally understand their child can’t play sports for awhile after a concussion, but there is still a need to educate teachers and parents about the importance of limiting academics, screen time, and other mental activities that can stress an injured brain.Continued...