Clamping down on concussions

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2011 - 3:34 PM

Bill seeks to protect athletes from repeat injuries.

Concussions left 15-year-old Kayla Meyer unable to play hockey -- her favorite sport since age 3 -- or sit in crowded rooms or focus on words on a page.

But one thing Meyer can do is work to prevent others from suffering, and that's what brought the New Prague teenager to St. Paul on Tuesday to testify on behalf of a Senate bill that would increase concussion awareness among parents and coaches and restrict when injured athletes return to play.

"I do not want what I am going through to happen to any other student athlete or family," she told members of the Senate Education Committee, her eyes straining under the bright light and her head pounding from the din of the State Capitol.

The bill would make Minnesota the 14th state to impose legal standards for sports concussions, which have become a focus of national concern as doctors learn more about the grave damage they can cause young athletes. Each year nearly 1,000 Minnesotans ages 5 to 19 sustain sports-related concussions, blows to the head that can cause headaches, forgetfulness and other symptoms.

While better helmets and tougher rules might reduce the number of head injuries, much of the focus has been on preventing second concussions -- especially when athletes are healing from their first. Those second injuries increase the risk of symptoms lasting for months or years, said Dr. Michael Bergeron, a Sanford Health sports medicine expert.

Under the bill, any athlete with a diagnosed concussion must gain clearance from a medical provider to play again. The bill would extend this requirement, already carried out by the Minnesota State High School League, to private athletic associations.

It would also require parents and players to sign a concussion information form and require coaches to complete a free, online training seminar. That's important, given that rec league coaches are often volunteers with little knowledge of concussions, said David King of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota.

'It hurt too much'

Had the law been in place, Meyer's story might have been different. In early 2009, playing for a club team, she fell and hit her head on the ice. Upset that the resulting concussion caused her to miss a tournament, Meyer rushed back to play four days later -- without a doctor's OK.

The second concussion occurred 10 months later, when Meyer was an eighth-grader on the high school team. Two girls slipped and slid under her legs, causing her to fall back on her head. She got up, and played for 10 more days, but headaches lingered.

"I had to ask my friends, 'Did I hit my head at practice?'" she said. "When they told me, I remembered that it happened."

After three weeks, Meyer said her coaches advised her to put on a helmet and try to skate. "It hurt too much to put a helmet on," she said. "If it hadn't hurt, I think I would have been right back out there."

King said many people underestimate the threat of concussions because there are no visible wounds and treatment comes without the visual cue of a cast.

Meyer agreed. Some classmates think she is faking. Others slap her on the back or grab her hair without realizing the pain it causes.

She is receiving therapy for convergence syndrome, a condition that makes it hard to focus on words or sentences.

While she dreams of playing hockey on the frozen pond with her family, she has given up playing competitively.

"Hockey was my life," she said. "It's what I did every day. It's really weird just trying to readjust my life."

Enforcement

Recognizing these risks, many schools and leagues now use the ImPACT screening system by which athletes take intelligence tests at the start of the season, and then again after concussions to assess the damage.

"It's so helpful to have that objective information instead of just asking kids, 'How are you?'" said Rachel Winthrop of Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, which manages screening for 11 school districts and six athletic associations.

"They will always tell you they feel fine, and later they won't even remember talking to you."

At Tuesday's hearing, lawyer Ross Plaetzer said the bill should mandate such screening. He also said the bill lacks a way to enforce the training requirements for coaches.

On the other hand, spokesmen for the Minnesota League of Cities and the Minnesota School Board Association questioned whether the bill would expose the groups to lawsuits and whether it applied to phy ed classes and after-school recreation programs.

Bergeron countered that leagues would face less risk of liability, because the law would take away guesswork from coaches. The bill, authored by Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, received support from committee member Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who said her two sons suffered greatly from sports concussions.

Meyer missed much of the debate. Flushed and tired from the noise, she left to find a quiet bench in a Capitol hallway. She stared down at her open-toed shoes.

"Not good," she said of the pain. "Not good."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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