Athletes benefit by brain-health testing
By Brandon Warr
Times Staff Writer
Since the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu and the National Football League acknowledging in 2010 that concussions can “change your life forever,” there have been multiple steps taken in the medical field to ensure athletes are ready to return to play before doing so.
Recently, Gunnison Valley Health (GVH) has announced that they will be expanding their concussion services to provide baseline testing and monitoring of Gunnison High School (GHS) as well as Western State Colorado University athletes.
Todd Ward, administrator for the county-owned health system’s Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Program, came to Gunnison from larger hospitals that had such concussion programs in place. As a result, upon his arrival here, Ward “saw the need for better monitoring at the GHS level as well as the college level.”
One of the new protocol developed in recent years is the 5-Step Return to Play Progression. Before an athlete can start step one — light aerobic exercise — they have to be cleared by their healthcare provider. But even before that an athlete will take Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, also known as the “ImPact” test.
The ImPact test is a computerized neurocognitive assessment tool that helps licensed healthcare providers manage an athlete that is suspected of having a concussion. After an athlete takes the test, their score is compared to their baseline test score and normative data score to determine how the athlete's brain is functioning. The baseline test is administered by a licensed healthcare provider before the athlete starts their season, in order to get a reading of their brain before a concussion occurs.
“It doesn't diagnose a concussion, but does give us a good idea as to whether we have returned a player to ‘normal’ function,” said GHS head football coach Jarrod Hinton of the ImPact test. “When I was in high school, there was no protocol for diagnosis or return to play. ... When you felt good, you returned to full-contact practice.”
So far this year, GVH has provided free sports physicals and ImPact testing for all GHS athletes — meaning that every athlete has a baseline score, in the event a concussion occurs.
The Gunnison Valley Health Foundation has covered the cost of the ImPact tests, the repeat testing and follow up testing for an athlete with a concussion. That means every athlete that has experienced a concussion during the 2017-18 school year has used the services provided by GVH in order to determine when they can start the 5-Step Return to Play Progression.
GVH also has a “return to class” program that helps determine when an athlete will be able to fully participate in a classroom work. The program helps indicate whether time away from a computer or from any activity that requires significant concentration will help the athlete recover more quickly, with the intention of still keeping them in a learning environment.
Additionally, to make sure every local primary care clinic is providing the same information when dealing with an athlete with a concussion, GVH brought in an expert from Pueblo to offer advanced training. GVH’s Ward also noted that Kristin Grimes, a member of the health system’s Rehab and Athletic Medicine Team, “is able to take some of the kids who aren’t responding quickly to do a more in depth test so they have a healthy recovery.”
While concussions can be scary, 85 percent of those who are diagnosed with a concussion heal quickly and are able to go back to play. The other 15 percent many need medical management, but typically are able to return to play.
5-STEP RETURN TO PLAY PROGRESSION
Step one — Aerobic exercise; five to 10 minutes jogging or riding on an exercise bike, to make sure no symptoms reappear.
Step two — Moderate activity; an athlete will moderately jog for 15 to 20 minutes.
Step three — Athlete will go through heavy (non-contact) activity; for example, a practice with no contact or a weightlifting routine.
Step four — They are able to practice with full contact (depending on the sport).
Step five — Athlete is allowed to return to competition.
(Brandon Warr can be reached at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com.)