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Friday, December 23, 2011

Nashua schools address concussion concerns, with help from St. Joseph Hospital

NASHUA – St. Joseph Hospital renewed a $4,000 grant for Nashua’s public high schools this month to provide ImPACT Concussion Management software to the schools’ student-athletes, a program that was implemented last year.

Concussions in sports, especially high-contact sports like football and hockey, have grabbed national headlines and media attention after star players, like NHL players Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby, have been sidelined for long periods at a time or even forced into early retirement.

Other problems regarding head-trauma and repeated concussions have come to light after player deaths, like former New York Rangers defenseman Derek Boogaard, who died this summer and was the subject of several lengthy stories published this month by The New York Times. At just 28, Boogaard’s brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which often occurs after multiple concussions.

Youth football programs in Nashua and Amherst have also embraced the opportunities to combat concussions. The Amherst Patriots are using the ImPACT software and working with Dr. Ted Davis, from St. Joseph Hospital, while Nashua’s Police Athletic League programs bought new helmets and mouthguards to help their young players.

Not wanting to fall behind, the Nashua high schools have developed a partnership with St. Joseph’s hospital and Dr. Davis, a certified ImPACT consultant and neuropsychologist.

The original agreement with St. Joseph Hospital was to have the local hospital pay for the first year of ImPACT testing, but the hospital waived the fee, said Nashua Athletic Director Thomas Arria.

“They offered to re-up the grant again for us this year,” Arria said. “It was very generous on their part.”

But even if St. Joseph Hospital does not offer to pay for the ImPACT testing in the future, Arria said it’s too important to lose.

“We’ll find the money,” he said. “It’s important enough that we’re not going to let this go because it’s too expensive. You can’t put a price range on the health and safety of our student-athletes.”

The ImPACT test is designed to make decisions about whether athletes can return to play. It can’t diagnose a concussion or suggest rehabilitation techniques, Davis said, but it applies to athletes of all ages.

The test is taken on the computer. It allows trained neuropsychologists to look at an athlete’s results from the baseline test and compare it to results from a new test, taken after the athlete suffers a concussion or hard hit.

“It’s very sensitive to changes in cognition from a concussion,” Davis said. “My job is to put those two data points side by side and see if there’s been any changes.”

The test looks at reaction time, vision and memory functions, among many other specifics. If the athlete, at any point in the recovery process, feels recurring symptoms, Davis said they should rest and limit activity.

Nashua student-athletes will take baseline tests as freshman and as juniors, and if they don’t receive a head injury in that span, those two exams are the only part of the program.

However, since the testing was implemented last year, there have been many post-injury exams, according to Jerry Holland, a local physiotherapist and Nashua’s head athletic trainer for the past 22 years.

Holland didn’t have specific numbers, but he said the increase in post-injury exams are a good thing because it means parents, students and coaches are working together to increase awareness about the seriousness of concussions.

“It’s a team effort,” Holland said. “As time goes on, more people will be aware of it.”

After testing without any symptoms, athletes can return to practice. But Davis said they must build gradually back to contact over a week or more; they can’t jump right back into it.

“If during all that time, there’s no return of symptoms, you can continue to progress,” he said. “What you’re trying to avoid is this catastrophic second-injury syndrome.”

Davis is talking about when a player who already has a concussion returns to play and sustains another blow that causes a second concussion, which can cause permanent damage.

The student-athletes also bear some of the responsibility in diagnosing as well, Arria said. News emerged last week about NHL player Colby Armstrong, who tried to hide his concussion from trainers. Arria said student-athletes need to tell their coaches how they feel after a hit and if they have any symptoms.

“We try to educate kids that if you’re feeling this way, you have to tell somebody,” he said. “Not every single hit or head bump is always seen. It’s some of the kid’s responsibility to tell their coaches.”

Hiding injuries to keep playing and keep your position will always be an issue though, Holland said.

“Unfortunately, you can never totally eliminate that, but by knowing the athlete and how they normally act, you can help to minimize it,” he said. “Letting them know it’s important to take care of this now. You don’t want to hide it. We’ve been pretty diligent with that so far.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out Kittle (@Telegraph_CamK) on Twitter.