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New concussion testing in schools will help ensure athlete safety

Eric Morken, Echo Press Alexandria student trainers and basketball players Emily Peck (front) and Brittany Ludwig took their baseline test with the ImPACT program in the Jefferson High School media center last Thursday. The test is the latest step that many local schools are taking to ensure players return safely from head injuries.

The days of rushing back athletes from head injuries are a thing of the past as more and more research shows the dangers of returning too soon from concussions.

Studies are showing that Second Impact Syndrome can lead to more serious injuries and long-term effects that might include headaches, depression, anxiety, and learning and concentration difficulties. Those findings have caused many schools across the country to put safety before speed when it comes to getting athletes back in action.

"Anytime you're talking about potential brain injuries, you have to be overly cautious," Alexandria football coach Mike Empting said. "I look back to when I was a player and the shots I took and the way I felt, I'm sure I was concussed and played. That's not a good situation."

Starting this fall, Empting's Cardinals will be one of the many programs in the area that are doing what they can to make sure that never happens. A web-based program called ImPACT will now be the standard used in deciding whether or not an athlete is ready to return to action in Alexandria, Osakis, West Central Area, Brandon-Evansville, Minnewaska and Parkers Prairie schools.

ImPACT measures multiple aspects of cognitive functioning. The 30-40 minute test will assess visual memory, concentration, speed processing and reaction time - all things that are negatively impacted after a concussion.

"With the emphasis that we're seeing nationwide on the impact of concussions, we want to be ahead of the game," District 206 Activities Director Dr. David Hartmann said, "and make sure we're doing all we can for the kids in our program. It's so important that we don't put anyone in a situation where there could be long-term effects."

Paul Westerberg, an athletic trainer at Jefferson High School since 2002, helped push for the new testing. A Standardized Assessment of Concussion (SAC) test was used until this year. SAC is a paper test that was successful in assessing concentration and memory. The test's downfall was its inability to gauge process and reaction speeds.

"It wasn't that it wasn't successful for us," Westerberg said. "But more and more research has been done since 2006 to show that concussions are more than just memory. It's also about reaction time."

Fall-sport athletes in football, cheerleading and boys' and girls' soccer in Alexandria were required to take a baseline test heading into the season. The tests are done online in a quiet area, most often a computer lab, without any distractions.

Those results will determine whether or not an athlete is symptom free and will serve as the standard at which an athletic trainer will look to if one of those players suffers a concussion during the season.

The idea is to use an objective way of determining when an athlete is ready to return. In the past, coaches and medical professionals had to rely on athletes to answer truthfully when asked about any symptoms they were still experiencing after a concussion.

"If you know athletes, they're ultra competitive," Westerberg said. "They're more than likely to falsify how they're feeling because they don't want to let their team down. They don't want to let their coaches down, their school down. They want to get back out there."

ImPACT further eliminates that subjective part of the equation. Trainers are now able to cover all their bases by going to the data to determine if there are any lingering symptoms.

"If a kid can pass the ImPACT test, I do feel a lot better that they are healed," Westerberg said. "I don't think you can pass it if you have some type of symptom. You may not even feel the symptoms. You may feel fine, but the test will show that you're not concentrating as well and maybe your reaction time isn't what you thought it was."

The switch to ImPACT comes at a time when the state is taking steps to ensure the safe return from concussions for young athletes. Governor Mark Dayton signed a sports concussion bill into law earlier this spring that requires every athlete to have written permission from a health-care professional before returning to action.

Coaches are also obligated to learn more about what to look for. They are required to take an initial online training course and another course once every three years after that to make sure they understand the symptoms that signal a concussion.

"I think most of our coaches have been pretty well trained," Hartmann said. "If we have had any doubt, we keep them out...this just raises the awareness and educates them on the symptoms. We have had very supportive participation. They all see the value in it."

Westerberg said they deal with an average of five to 10 concussion cases every school year in District 206. An estimated 3.8 million cases a year are reported in the United States.

The goal across the board is becoming a lot more clear - get athletes back in the game only when they are 100-percent healthy.

"We need to make sure that they're healthy," Westerberg said. "Because if they're not, and they come back and get hit again, it could be a lot worse, and it could take a heck of a lot longer to get them back. It's just better to deal with it right the first time."


Once an athlete says they are symptom free, they must pass a series of tests before returning to game action.

They must first perform the ImPACT test to determine whether or not they reach their baseline levels. If they do, the athlete is then cleared to go through a multi-step process. First is riding on a stationary bike before moving on to light jogging. They then go on to a rigorous sprinting test and non-contact activity.

If they pass all those without experiencing any setbacks, they will be allowed to move back into the contact portion of the sport.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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