Recognizing a concussion needs to be part of training

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By Sherry Robinson

During a brutal game with the Aggies, UNM football star Clarence Heald suffered a concussion that knocked him cold. He got up and played, semiconscious, to the end of the game, when he took another blow to the head and was unconscious for half an hour.
It was 1906. UNM’s slogan at the time: “Do or die.”
Today, we know that young Clarence probably paid for those injuries the rest of his life with dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty focusing or depression, among other things.
We’ve learned a lot about brain injuries and sports in New Mexico.
UNM’s Brain Safe Project, which began in 2013, uses MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) taken over time to study the long-term effects of brain concussions on student athletes. By 2014, it had the world’s largest database of student athletes and concussions. Some of its subjects had already looked at the images, decided not to press their luck, and stopped playing.
State law prescribes brain-injury protocols for school sports, including training for coaches, and the New Mexico Activities Association provides clear information about concussions to parents and students on its website.
So we’re more aware and better informed, but we’re not quite there yet.
Former legislator Dick Minzner pointed out recently that parents sign the same permission form, whether it’s golf or football, and the form carries a generic warning about the possibility of severe injuries “inherent in physical activity.”
However, the risks in football far exceed that of all other sports. Every year, 11 high school players die from playing football, and 22 suffer catastrophic injuries, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research in 2014. Half of all high school players will be injured, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Mike Ditka himself has said he wouldn’t let his son play football for that reason.
Minzner wants to make sure players and parents understand the higher risks of football and recognize that the chance of a full-ride scholarship or pro-ball are so small it’s not worth risking your health.
Two related issues are the level of awareness in league or club sports and the understanding by athletes themselves.
A study last year revealed some troubling numbers. Young athletes in New Mexico had a rate of concussion more than 2.5 times the rate reported in a similar study in another state, and the rate of concussion during PE was 60 percent higher than the rate during sports, according to UNM’s Brain and Behavioral Institute. And while nearly all middle and high school coaches received state mandated training on concussion management, nobody knows if PE teachers or club coaches are trained.
The study, for the Governor’s Council on Disability, also found that more than half of New Mexico schools say they have inadequate resources to diagnose and manage sports concussions, and most want more training in diagnosis and treatment.
In the last legislative session, Senate Bill 492, by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, would have required league coaches to be trained to recognize signs of brain injury and the need for appropriate medical diagnosis and treatment.
And SB 431, by Sen. William Soules, a teacher, would have required students to get brain-injury training. From analysis of that bill by the state Department of Health, we know that 80 percent of sports-related brain injuries among young New Mexicans were in kids 10 to 17, and boys were injured three times more often than girls. The highest numbers of brain injuries were in boys’ football and girls’ soccer.
Both bills died, but they’re on the right track. During debate, one legislator proposed penalizing coaches for fumbling the concussion question. Another fine or another law probably won’t affect a coach’s split-second decision to send another Clarence Heald onto the field, but better training would.