Athletes at the professional level, specifically football players, have become increasingly more prone to head injuries, and doctors and trainers are taking action to try and prevent damaging effects.
But the process doesn’t begin at the professional level. Rather, when athletes become serious about what sport or activities he or she most wants to pursue, the high school playing field becomes very competitive.
Locally, has always been known to have a strong, competitive athletic department. With that success comes the drive to continue to produce titles and championships, as well as help athletes prepare for the collegiate level.
For the fifth straight year, the high school’s athletic training department has been led by 30-year-employee Suzanne Barba. The trainer used to split her time between the classroom and training room, but now focuses solely on sports injuries to student athletes.
While Barba isn’t so sure more concussions or head injuries are happening, she is confident that the recognition of them has grown.
“I’ve always been careful with (student athletes) who sustained head injuries,” Barba said. “But I think when it comes to concussions specifically, we’re definitely recognizing it a lot more.”
Along with the higher recognition volume has come more stringent procedures around nursing an athlete back to health before stepping foot on the field again.
It’s called the return-to-play protocol, which Barba is in charge of at the high school. The protocol puts athletes who have sustained any type of concussion–mild to severe–through a scheduled regimen of activities that must be passed in order to play again.
First a student must endure a full day of school without feeling effects from the concussion. Following that 24 hours later, he or she will take a 15 minute ride on a stationery bike. The next day the athlete will participate in a distance run, followed by a sprint run on the fourth day. If the student has successfully completed all the activities without showing side effects, he or she may return to the field.
‘Bigger, Faster, Stronger’
In recent years, football has been upgraded from a contact sport to a collision sport based on the amount of impact players are sustaining.
For Wolfpack head football coach Kevin Hennelly, now entering his 16th season as the program’s leader, the upgrade comes as no surprise.
“The speed of the game has become greater,” Hennelly said. “The players today, they’re bigger, faster and stronger than ever before. Think about getting hit by a guy and getting your bell rung. Now double the speed the guy has because everyone’s so much faster now. That’s why this is happening.”
Hennelly said, specifically in football, the old-timer mentality of “just walk it off” still remains with many coaches.
“It used to be you put your nose to the numbers and hit the guy, and that was it,” he said. “Now if kids are getting dinged up (you) call for the trainer.”
While football has continued to grow as a contact sport, it’s not the only activity students can be hurt in.
Courtney Chase, a member of the West Morris Central Lady Highlanders’ basketball team, says she’s seen plenty of head injuries happen on the court.
“Just last season, an opposing player got tangled up under the basket, fell back and hit her head on the ground,” Chase said. “She was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures and only ended up having a mild concussion. But (Ms.) Barba treated the situation very seriously.”
Chase said she’s noticed a major change in the way coaches treat players in high-contact incidents over the past few years. “Although (the injury) may seem mild, they still treat the situation as if the injury was very serious.”
But it’s not always up to the coaches or trainers to make the assessment, Barba said.
“You don’t have to be hit in the head to suffer a concussion,” she said. “Helmets are used to protect skull fractures. That doesn’t mean the brain is still unaffected.”
Knowing a serious injury could keep an athlete out of practice or competition for days, weeks and even months, not all players are forthcoming with their pains.
“When these new rules came out, athletic trainers got nervous–we knew the kids would want to hide,” Barba said. “But we allow them to work out with me in a controlled environment while waiting to be cleared to come back and play.”
Barba said 49-percent of athletes she treated for rehabilitation during the 2011-12 school year was for some form of head injury.
In last year’s fall sports, 16 of 22 athletes with head injuries at the high school were sent to a doctor. For winter sports, 10 of 16 athletes needed to see a doctor, and another 14 of 20 did the same in the spring.
“You have to take the proper precautions,” Barba said. “This isn’t about potentially ruining careers, it can ruin lives."