BETHESDA, Md. (WUSA9) -- As kids head back to school, 9 Wants You to Know about changes at area school districts aimed at protecting student athletes from serious head injuries.
For the first time, all high school athletes in Montgomery County, Maryland Public Schools will get cognitive testing before they can practice, or play.
Laura Hartman is with Medstar Sports Medicine and the athletic director, department of orthopaedics, at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. She is administering the computer based tests called ImPACT at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. She says, "Montgomery County has mandated that all of their student athletes, regardless of sport, be required to take a baseline concussion test."
Hartman says the test measures memory of both written words and patterns, among other things, to get a baseline assessment. Then, if a player suffers a concussion this season, a follow-up test could be given for comparison three to seven days after the injury.
Hartman, who will also be on-staff as an athletic trainer this season at a Montgomery County High School, explains, "We start to re-test them once they show signs of recovery, in order to release them and put them on track for therapy."
Jim Kuhn is the head football coach of the Whitman Fighting Vikings. Coach Kuhn elaborates on further precautions in place.
He says, "We have a whole 'return to play' protocol in Montgomery County. They are cleared by the doctor and then they start working with our trainer to get back on the field to start doing some agility drills."
Kuhn says his players are also trained in USA Football's "Heads Up" program, which teaches tackling techniques that protect against head and neck injuries. Players are hitting during only two practices a week, in addition to game day. "To try and decrease the number of sub-concussive hits," explains Kuhn.
The danger of a second trauma before a concussion has sufficiently healed is called second-impact syndrome, It is very much on the minds of high school coaches, thanks to scientific research supported, in part, by the NFL.
One hard and fast rule to protect against a second, potentially devastating head injury: athletes who've suffered a concussion do not begin a gradual return to their sport until they are completely symptom-free for 24 hours. If symptoms return, the player is taken back to 'square one' in rehabilitation.
Kuhn says it only makes sense to adhere to the guidelines.
"These guys love the game just like I do. But the vast majority of them, all of them, are headed to college in the next few years. They have a life beyond football, and its just not worth it, putting them at that risk."
Laura Hartman says in addition to the obvious symptom of a severe headache after a head injury, subtle signs of a lingering concussion include troubling sleeping, difficult reading, concentrating on computer screens, sensitivity to sunlight, and memory problems.
In Maryland, Charles, Howard and Anne Arundel counties are also using the ImPACT baseline concussion program; Washington, DC public schools are testing athletes as well, starting with those playing sports considered high-risk. Athletic trainers say the Fairfax County Public School District in Virginia has been administering the ImPACT test with its student athletes for several years.