Regardless of which teams emerge as national powers during this high school football season, there's little question that one of the legacies of 2010 will be how different states deal with concussions. While there's been little chance for teams to develop a new strategy when it comes to treatment so far -- we are just one week into the season -- there's already a new trend sweeping the country that might keep schools from allowing players back on the field before they're truly ready.
Before the season started, athletes in states across the country took the ImPACT test, an online assessment that grades a player's memory, motor skills and reaction times. Players take the test once before pratices began to establish a baseline performance. If an athlete suffers from a suspected concussion later, they can re-take the test, and that score can be compared with their first performance to determine if they are suffering from a concussion's longer-term effects.
"It's not a pass or fail, not an IQ test," Steve Friebus, an athletic trainer at Bixby High School in Oklahoma, told TV station KOTV. "It's compared to no one but themselves. ... We're not basing decisions on well it's the big game, we need to get them in there. No, it's when they're ready. This is what we're looking for."
The ImPACT system has been used in the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA and with NCAA teams across the country, so it's a wonder it hasn't been tried more extensively in high schools before this year. Now pilot programs using the ImPACT test are popping up in Northern and Southern California, Oklahoma, New Jersey, the Washington, D.C. area and Kansas, among other states.
"There's been no real standardized treatment before this - some players stay on the field, some players come off," David Franklin, a neuropsychologist and assistant clinical professor at UC Irvine, told the Los Angeles Times. "This is another safeguard to help."
Cost doesn't seem to be a significant issue for the moment. The makers of ImPACT have provided the software to run the test for free to many of the schools and districts requesting it. The cost isn't particularly prohibitive for schools who aren't getting the testing program free, either: According to ImPACT's standard packages, a school can provide the test for more than 150 students on an annual basis for only $500. Testing for another 150 athletes increases the price to $750, and 500 testers can be covered on an annual basis for $1,000.
In other cases outside of schools, like one open call put out in Ridgewood, N.J., the test makers helped the sports institute of a local hospital offer the test for free to any scholastic athletes interested in taking it.
The ImPACT test may not help players prevent a concussion, but it could help avoid further damage. One 2009 study found that more than 40 percent of high school athletes returned to action too soon after suffering a concussion, putting them at significant risk of further concussions and more lingering health problems. That may be a key factor in avoiding much more serious damage, as more and more studies emerge linking athletes who suffer repeated concussions with brain damage and even ALS.
"This is a way to protect the kids from coaches and overeager parents and from themselves," Servite High School athletic trainer Chaz Kekipi told the Los Angeles Times. "To have a neurocognitive program, yeah, I do rest easier knowing my kids are safe."