Blue Hill and Deer Isle—A smack of the head. A fast jerk of the neck.
Accidents happen in sports, played fast and often hard on outdoor field and indoor courts. But they aren’t shrugged off anymore, as awareness of the causes and effects of concussion grows among coaches, parents and athletes.
“Head injuries have been taking all sports by storm,” George Stevens Academy head soccer coach Mark Ensworth said. “Any time there’s any question, we’re putting [athletes] through the protocol.”
Coaches at Deer Isle-Stonington and GSA undergo required training to recognize and react to possible concussions, and both schools follow concussion policies for allowing athletes to return to play. Parents sign the policies before athletes are allowed to play.
A concussion is caused by any blow that makes the head snap forward, causing the brain to accelerate and hit the inside of the skull.
“You don’t need a blow to the head to have a concussion,” said Dr. Bruce Hamilton-Dick, in a Blue Hill Memorial Hospital-sponsored talk last spring. The “bigger danger” is a secondary blow, when the brain is in an impaired state. “Sending [athletes] back into the game puts them at a huge risk.”
For DISHS and GSA, a suspected concussion kicks a specific protocol into action: players are taken out of the game, parents are notified, and the student must be seen by a physician and cleared before beginning a gradual return to play. At DISHS, returning athletes take an impact assessment, which measures different cognitive elements. At GSA, players are assessed after their first returning game.
“We have an open line of communication with parents to relay symptoms,” Ensworth said.
But it’s the athletes who are on the front line, both on the field and off, in honestly reporting symptoms.
“Our team is based on the word ‘trust,’ said GSA varsity basketball coach Dwayne Carter, who has had players sidelined with concussions for anywhere from half a season to two years. “Athletes always want to play but they are now very aware of the seriousness of concussion.”
Former GSA athlete Lucas Theoharidis’ concussion came on the soccer field, when he jumped for a “header” and smacked heads with another player.
“He was only complaining of neck pain,” said his mother and GSA nurse Lisa Theoharidis, who evaluates students who return to games after a concussion. Then, at Lucas’s next practice, his head began to hurt. Ensworth pulled him out and Theoharidis took him to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with a concussion. He never fully returned to the field.
Standard treatment for a concussion is to stay home, in a darkened room with no reading, screens or physical activity for one to two days. If symptoms have disappeared, light activity can begin, then non-contact training, full contact practice and finally, a return to play, with 24 hours between each step, a seven-to-10 day process.
“Each child responds differently to concussion, so it varies on the amount of time it takes for them to return,” DISHS Principal and Athletic Director Ed Hatch said.
For Lucas, “it was an entire year,” his mother said. “He was getting better and was starting to return to play and a friend ‘dope-slapped’ him.” That triggered his symptoms.” Later, tripping and bumping his head did the same. Now in college, Lucas still gets headaches, his mother said. These are often triggered by stress, despite occupational therapy and acupuncture. “I think he’s always going to have symptoms,” she said.
Not everyone shows obvious symptoms from a concussion, and loss of consciousness is the least common, according to Hamilton-Dick. The most common symptoms are: dizziness; headaches; nausea or vomiting; impaired balance; confusion; ; sensitivity to light; sleepiness or sleep disturbances; fatigue; irritability or mild depression; and ringing in the ears.
“The best advice I would give to parents is, if you suspect a head injury, monitor your child and check for symptoms,” Hatch said. “If you suspect that something is off, take your child to the doctor.”