Protecting student athletes so they can keep their head in the game

Aug. 23, 2023

When a student athlete sustains a bump, jolt or blow to the head through contact with a ball, another body or the ground, it can cause a concussion or a mild traumatic brain injury. Concussions can also be caused through a whiplash effect, for instance, after a car accident.

School districts are working to make sports safer for student athletes, specifically their brains, by adding ImPACT tests to their protocol. Photo: Getty Images.
School districts are working to make sports safer for student athletes, specifically their brains, by adding ImPACT tests to their tool kit. Photo: Getty Images.

Now, thanks to technology and science, school districts are working to make sports safer for student athletes, specifically their brains.

Here’s how it works: A computerized concussion assessment tool called ImPACT is done preseason to capture an athletes’ neurological function in key areas before being exposed to potential injury. These findings are valuable for medical professionals to compare against the results of the same test a student would take after they sustain a head injury.

“We use the ImPACT test, in conjunction with signs and symptoms of a concussion, to help young athletes recover from a concussion,” said Justine Elder, a certified athletic trainer at UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “It helps us to know how their brain is healing and how we can return them to their sport in a safe and timely manner.”

Baseline testing: What is an ImPACT test?

Through the ImPACT program, all students ages 12 and up participating in contact sports in local school districts must participate in the 30-minute test every two years. Contact sports might include football and volleyball in the fall; basketball, hockey and wrestling in the winter; or lacrosse, baseball, soccer and track in the spring.

The test measures the student athlete’s neurological functions in four areas: memory, processing speed, reaction time, and visual and verbal problem solving. The baseline findings are stored in the ImPACT system.

If a student gets a concussion or head injury, we remove them from play and ask them to follow up with a medical provider who would have access to the ImPACT assessment results,” said Elder. “The provider can then run post-concussion ImPACT tests and compare those findings to the prior ones to determine the extent of the injury. This tool, along with vestibular and oculomotor testing, can help clinicians determine when and how an athlete can return to their sport.”

Elder, who supports students within the Hayden and Steamboat Springs school districts, said coaches, athletic trainers, doctors and clinical specialists must weigh safety concerns against the strong desire of most students who want to return quickly to the field, court and rink. The potential damage to a young person’s brain, both short and long term, means that a thorough protocol must be followed to maximize the best outcome.

“We know athletes want to get back to their sport as soon as possible, and we want to get them back as well, but we need to do it safely,’’ said Elder, adding that undiagnosed concussions can be dangerous if a student suffers a second one. “If you play through a head injury and don’t report it, the second time can be very detrimental. We call it second-impact syndrome, and it can cause serious long-lasting effects years down the road.”

Post-concussion assessment: What should you look for?

Elder advises parents to keep an eye on their children if they’re involved in contact sports and notice them “not acting like themselves.” Signs of a concussion may include:

  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Balance problems or dizziness.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Sensitivity to light and/or noise.
  • Memory problems.

Concussion protocol

Recovery and return to sport can range from a couple of weeks to months, depending on the severity of the concussion. Athletic trainers and trained medical professionals work as a team to guide athletes through a five-stage return to sport protocol that includes:

  • Light aerobic activity.
  • Moderate aerobic activity.
  • Strengthening and cardio activity.
  • Non-contact practice.
  • Full-contact practice.

“There’s a lot of serious issues that can come with concussions, and it is important athletes report a head injury to their coaches, parents and athletic trainer,” said Elder. “Athletes, coaches and medical professionals play critical roles in concussion prevention, recognition and rehabilitation.”

For more information or to schedule an ImPACT test:

  • Hayden School District, Steamboat Springs Middle School and Sleeping Giant School
  • Steamboat Springs High School

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.