As student athletes return to the field and court this fall, attention turns from preseason polls and summer vacation to fall practice and dreams of championships.
As players sweat, parents and coaches try to make sure their athletes are staying healthy and avoiding head injuries. "We try and keep a watchful eye on them. You can usually tell [if they have a head injury]. You can see it in their eyes. Either they're in love, or they've had a concussion," says Dobyns-Bennett head football coach Graham Clark.
Clark says they're not just relying on observation. High schools and colleges, including Dobyns-Bennett, are using computers to test baseline cognitive function in the hopes of detecting a concussion when it happens. "I'm sure we've had guys that hide them. If you get dinged a little bit, you're getting checked," said Clark. "If they have a concussion, they have to go back and pass the test on the computer and you have to have a doctor's approval before you can come back, which is a good thing."
But concussions can't be prevented; that's something Tennessee High Viking Briggs Evans learned last year after take a hit during preseason practice. "I don't really remember most of it, but they were saying I was acting weird," said Evans.
Coaches called his parents. "As soon as I got there, I knew there was something wrong," said his step-dad Matthew Williams. "It was pretty scary actually. Something was majorly wrong and we didn't know what it was."
A trip to the hospital confirmed he had a concussion, which took plenty of time to heal. "I had headaches. Light was irritating. Noise was irritating, but I got over it in about a month. It took about a month to calm down," said the junior wide receiver.
Briggs returned to the field and is playing again this season, but he doesn't think football should be singled out when it comes to head injury prevention. "You could hit your head in a basketball game, you could get hit in the head by a baseball," he told us. "It's just part of playing sports."
Doctors say the damage from a head injury caused by a concussion can have a long-lasting impact. "Patients can have trouble with cognitive abilities, trouble returning to work. We've had patients that have had difficulty with doing things they would normally do every day. Working on the computer seems to bother a lot of people with head injury from concussions," said Dr. Tiffany Lasky, an emergency department trauma physician with Holston Valley Medical Center.
Dr. Lasky has seen her fair share of head injuries and says they get worse with frequency. "Any time you've been hit in the head, and it happens again in a short period of time, the stakes are higher. The chance of a head injury goes up, and especially the chance of concussions," said Lasky.
Lasky says that is why the healing process is so important especially for students.
East Tennessee State University is making sure student-athletes and their professors are prepared. "We educate them on the effects of concussions and how it can affect academics. When our kids do sustain a concussion, it's been very positive. Our faculty has been very understanding in allowing students to heal," said ETSU assistant athletic director for sports medicine Brian Johnston.