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Tom Mix, Published August 26 2012

North Dakota paints clearer concussion picture with recent NDHSAA survey

Fargo - Not too long ago, little was known about the impacts concussions were having on athletes. Also unknown was how to properly diagnose and manage concussions.

It was a different time. Athletes sometimes returned to games and practices immediately after suffering a concussion. Coaches were not equipped with the resources or the knowledge to recognize the symptoms and often authorized an athlete’s return without knowing the potential risk for long-term damage.

The recent attention given to concussions has gone a long way in reversing those trends.

A year ago, the state legislatures of Minnesota and North Dakota – along with many other states across the nation – passed student-athlete concussion laws that require any athlete under the age of 18 who suffers a concussion or concussion-like symptoms to be removed from competition.

The National Federation of State High School Associations sponsors a coaches education program on concussions. The courses are free and are required to be viewed by high school coaches in every sport and activity in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Since those laws and regulations went into effect, athletes, coaches and administrators in each state have gone through one full season under the new regulations.

Under the recommendation of the North Dakota Legislature, the North Dakota High School Activities Association issued a season-ending concussion report survey to its member schools in hopes of getting a better idea of how many concussions occur statewide.

The survey – issued to all 169 of the NDHSAA member schools – was responded to by 117 schools (13 Class A and 104 Class B). Of the 24 sports and activities where concussions are of heightened possibility of occurring, a total of 580 concussions were reported in the state of North Dakota in the 2011-12 academic year.

The survey’s findings were released in June at a NDHSAA board of directors meeting in Valley City, N.D.

“It is a relatively large number, but I have nothing to compare it to,” NDHSAA Executive secretary Sherm Sylling said. “I was a little surprised at the number. The number of high school kids in our state that have concussions is a significant number.”

The sport that saw the most concussions in the NDHSAA survey was football with 232 reported. According to the 2011-12 NDHSAA participation report, 4,119 student-athletes participated in football. That means about 1 in every 18 football players suffered a concussion last fall.

Total participation numbers from the 24 activities detailed in the survey totaled 26,260. With the reported numbers of 580 concussions, about 1 in every 45 athletes suffered a concussion.

Girls hockey also had a concussion ratio of 1-to-18, with 12 reported and 216 total athletes participating.

The second-largest total number of concussions to football was girls basketball, which had 65.

The concussions survey was a first for the NDHSAA, and prior to last year, it had never kept any organized data on the number of concussions in the state.

“Now there is more awareness, so I think we are doing better things for kids,” said Fargo Public Schools activities director Todd Olson, who also is a member of the NDHSAA board of directors. “We know more about concussions. … As much as maybe there has been negative publicity for some sports, it has been good for athletes in general that there has been this awareness.”

The survey also asked the member schools to answer the question: In your opinion, was the number of concussions reported the same or higher than in previous years?

Fifteen percent of the schools responded numbers were lower, 64 percent said the same, 17 percent said numbers were higher, and 3 percent left no response.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are nearly four million recreational and sports-related concussions each year in the United States, and the frequency with which they are being reported is rising.

Key concerns with concussions are that they are in some cases hard to diagnose, not always a season-ending injury and often the athlete can return to competition.

“We run into it every year,” West Fargo head football coach Jay Gibson said. “We have had players that have had concussion-like symptoms. Other than taking them out of a game or taking them out of practice, I don’t remember losing anyone for the season because of a concussion.”

The CDC study on concussions states an estimated 40 percent of athletes return to competition sooner than modern guidelines would suggest, and that children and teens are more likely to get concussions and take longer to recover.

The laws passed last fall require written permission by a licensed, registered or certified health-care provider whose scope of practice included the diagnosis and treatment of a concussion.

Gibson said West Fargo football has its own series of certified concussion tests that require athletes to perform several activities that test cognitive functions at the same time.

Count Gibson in the camp that is glad to see the concussion issue getting heightened attention.

“I’m really glad there is a greater public awareness,” said Gibson, who is entering his 22nd year as head coach of the Packers. “Now other people understand as to why their son’s helmet comes off, why we hide the helmet and why he isn’t going back into the game because he can’t focus on my finger or count to 10 backwards.”

The concussion issue, which still gets regular national headlines, isn’t likely to fade from the nation’s conscience.

It certainly won’t be leaving the NDHSAA agenda anytime soon.

“It is information we need to stay current with,” Sylling said. “I anticipate us doing the survey in the spring each year.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562