March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, a month-long awareness event sponsored by the Brain Injury Association of America to remind us that “a brain injury can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone.” Although concussions are sometimes treated as less serious brain injuries, they are nevertheless classified as “traumatic,” and can have lasting consequences. Luckily, in the 15 years since I was a college athlete, strides have been made to assure the safety of athletes of all ages and across a growing list of sports and activities. In Wyoming (as well as the majority of U.S. states), policies have been adopted throughout all school districts in respect to education of athletes, parents, coaches and trainers about the definition of a concussion, as well as requirements for returning to play. But, concern for the athlete’s physical ability to return to play and proper education of those involved either directly or indirectly in competition must not be the only consideration.
New evidence from Boston Children’s Hospital suggests an increased need for student-athletes to avoid “cognitive challenges” following a concussion. Dr. Huy Nguyen, Medical Director at the Boston Public Health Commission and a pediatrician at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center reiterated the need for what he calls “cognitive rest,” which should include refraining from video games, texting, reading, and homework for a time to allow for proper healing. Physicians even suggest that there should be zero activity in these areas for the first three to five days following an injury. Nguyen warns that a failure to adhere to reduced cognitive activities could mean increased brain activity that could slow the healing process and potentially worsen symptoms. Citing the same Boston Children’s Hospital study, Nguyen points out that student athletes with a head injury within the past year may suffer symptoms up to three times longer than those sustaining a first head injury. Therefore, it is important that all policy requirements be met before a student athlete returns to athletics or academics.
Although the injury may have occurred on the field of play, that does not diminish the need for teachers to be vigilant as they observe students in their classrooms. In order to empower school professionals not directly involved in athletic play, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a resource, “Head’s Up to Schools: Know Your Concussions ABCs.” This printable flyer/poster addresses the need for teachers to: Assess the situation, Be alert for signs and symptoms, and to Contact a health professional when needed. The hope is that as teachers become familiar with this guide and display it within their classroom, they will understand the importance of cognitive rest in the overall health and recovery of the injured athlete and be amicable to making academic accommodations for students. By raising concussion education and awareness across the spectrum of school professionals, all will play a more active role in the management of this potentially serious condition.