It seemed like just another soccer game for Aspen High School junior Connor Pierce, until the next day when he was sitting in business class. There, he felt dizzy and lacked the necessary concentration to stay focused.
“I was trying to focus on what (the teacher) was saying and as I was listening, I drifted up to the ceiling and the lights were really bright, so I had to close my eyes,” Pierce said. “I remember (the teacher) coming over and patting me on the shoulder because I had a very dazed look on my face and my eyes (were) closed. I felt nauseous the rest of the day.”
Pierce said he doesn’t remember having a head collision on the day of the game, Oct. 3. He doesn’t remember much, but knows he played the duration of the match. A few days later, Pierce learned he would be sidelined the rest of the season because of a concussion.
Pierce is among eight to 10 student-athletes who had concussions from sporting events this past season, said Celty Fitterer, the Aspen High School athletic trainer.
The spotlight has been cast on head injuries and concussions of late. Concussion awareness has spiked due to research revealing the lasting effects and dangers of concussions on developing brains. Many professional athletes have gone public about the long-term brain damage they’ve suffered.
High schools have taken notice, too, because of such tragic events like the one in November, when Charles Youvella, an Arizona high school football player, suffered a blow to the head and died a few days later in a Phoenix hospital.
Sports-related concussions among athletes up to 19 years old have increased by 60 percent over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC states as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year in the U.S.
Between 1931 and 2011, of the 678 high school football players who died because of on-field injuries, two-thirds were from helmet-to-helmet contact, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research Annual Survey of Football Injury Research Report 2011.
Concussion awareness at Aspen High
Fitterer became the new athletic trainer at Aspen High School in the end of August and is pushing concussion education among athletes and parents.
“Especially with what’s been in the news recently with the kid in Arizona that went down and died ... (concussions) are a very serious and real thing,” said Fitterer, who has a master’s degree in athletic training. Fitterer works at Aspen Orthopaedics, which contracts her out to be the athletic trainer at the high school. Concussions are the most dangerous injury a student athlete will encounter, Fitterer said.
“Besides someone having a cardiac problem or breaking a bone, a concussion is what can last the longest and be the most severe because it’s our brain,” Fitterer said.
Like many states, Colorado has taken steps for how concussions should be handled. In 2011, Gov. Hickenlooper signed into law Jake Snakenberg Youth Sports Concussion Act. The bill requires coaches to receive education about concussions, athletes to be removed from action if a concussion is suspected and athletes be signed off by a medical professional before returning to play. The act took effect Jan. 1, 2012
Aspen High School Athletic Director Carol Sams said the school is paying closer attention to when students do get hit in the head.
“We’re doing everything we can at the high school to stay on top of head injuries and concussions,” Sams said.
The school uses a computer-based test called ImPACT, which measures students’ neurocognitive function at a baseline level when they began playing sports. It can be administered after a suspected concussion to help determine whether new deficits exist. This test is not foolproof, but it is one piece of the puzzle in determining whether students are affected by a concussion, according to the ImPACT test website.
This test has been used for the past three years for athletes who play a contact sport, but this year non-contact sport athletes are being tested.
“There is a higher instance for these kids (to get a concussion) if they are in three sports ... now they have a fall, winter and spring opportunity,” Fitterer said.
In addition to ImPACT testing on athletes, Fitterer recently held a head-injury informational meeting for athletes, parents and coaches for the winter season.
“(People need to know) this is what a concussion is, these are the symptoms you look for, this is how it can happen and this is how it can be treated,” she said.
When Fitterer suspects an athlete has a concussion, she first observes their symptoms. If no symptoms are seen, she puts the athlete through an exertion test consisting of sprints and push-ups. Then, if they still do not show symptoms the athlete can play; however, normally she said they are benched. Then, it becomes a day-by-day process to see if their symptoms decrease.
After being diagnosed with a concussion, slowing down is most important, said occupational therapist Dr. Krista Fox.
“They need rest, and that is really hard for Aspen people,” she said. “They don’t realize being on the phone, going out socially with friends and all those things are usually way too much. The best and most important role is to truly stop, slow down and get them to rest their brains.”
Getting the word out
Fitterer is also working with doctors in the valley to provide concussion-awareness education. Dr. Brooke Allen, a neurologist in Basalt, Dr. Dewayne Niebur, a primary-care physician, and Dr. Fox are a few in this group. They are working to educate and set management standards for how to deal with concussions in the valley.
“Education is right now our best defense,” Fox said. “You need to wear a helmet, but they don’t protect against brain injuries ... so the next best thing we can do is educate everybody.”
This group is not just focusing on educating people on the dangers of concussions, but is equally focused on how concussions need to be treated after they are diagnosed. It’s not just about getting an athlete back to play anymore. It’s about getting them back to life, first.
Before a student-athlete goes back to play, they need to be able to function in school. Pierce was out four to five weeks after his concussion and did not start the return-to-play protocol until the fourth week. He had to wait for all his symptoms to clear before beginning light aerobic exercise progressing into sport-specific exercise to non-contact training drills to finally returning to full-contact practice.
A hit on the head used to be viewed as just getting your bell rung, it’s no big deal, rub some dirt on it and get back in the game. Now parents, coaches and trainers view concussions as serious head injuries. But do the athletes?
Pierce said that most of his peers view concussions as a mild injury, but he knows that is not true.
“I realized how serious (concussions) are when I couldn’t focus in one of my easiest classes,” he said.
Fitterer agreed that most athletes do not see the severity in head injuries, but athletes are starting to understand.
“With the way football used to be, (a hurt player) just sucked it up and if you’re hurt you played through it,” she said. “There’s still the mentality that it’s OK to do that and with the stories and statistics that have come out it’s not OK. We’re getting more injuries by playing through something.”
Abby Margulis is an editorial intern working at The Aspen Times. She is a junior at DePauw University in Indiana.