Schools on alert for concussions among student athletes
In less than three weeks, high school football teams can begin conditioning sessions. Full practice begins a week later, with live contact.
When that happens, student athletes will be watched - perhaps more closely than ever - for signs of head trauma.
The issue has received a lot of attention in recent years, with several high-profile cases of sports concussions in professional and student athletes. Locally, two-time Kennedy Award winner and former George Washington High School running back Ryan Switzer, who sat out one game after falling hard in the 2012 season opener against South Charleston.
This year, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission is requiring all head coaches for sports on a middle school and high school level to receive training on concussions - how to recognize them and then how to proceed when they do.
"That will alert coaches to what they need to be aware of and how to be aware of it," said Gary Ray, executive director of the activities commission. "So then if there's any question about a kid or an athlete, they know how to deal with it."
That's part of a larger initiative to educate communities in all of West Virginia's schools about concussions, in an effort to keep everyone on the lookout for concussion symptoms.
At high school football games, an athletic trainer is always on hand to watch out for trouble signs and evaluate a student who may have been injured. But that doesn't apply to all sports where concussions may occur, or even to team practices, where injuries can also happen.
"Football is the focus, as it should be, but concussions could occur in every activity we have - a young person could be out running cross country and fall and hurt their head," Ray said.
And sometimes it's not immediately clear that an athlete has suffered a concussion. But the symptoms could crop up later, in class or at home or with their friends, and if the people around an athlete know what to look for, they may be able to identify their condition.
That's why the activities commission is also opening up the training course required for coaches to anyone who wants to take it and mounting a campaign to put posters and educational information in every school.
There's also a new project to gather data on concussions in all schools. Every school completes a survey each month that will tell the activities commission about any concussions that have occurred there in the last 30 days.
"That will give us a good database of what we need to be aware of so we can kind of track it and see what we need to look at more closely," Ray said.
Nearby in Putnam County, a group of doctors is going beyond these statewide initiatives. Chiropractor Tony Erwin and John Neville, a family doctor, volunteer as team doctors for the Hurricane High School football team and are working to prevent concussions countywide.
Their efforts include making a baseline assessment mandatory. It will be part of their annual physical and will give officials something to work with later on if they run into trouble.
"It takes the burden off the parents or the players who are worried about where this concussion thing is going, keeping a closer eye on them," Erwin said. "And I really do believe that with all the eyes we have on these kids today, football and contact sports today are probably safer than they've ever been."
In Kanawha County, too, officials say athletics staff members are more aware than ever of the dangers of head trauma.
"There's nothing that we really take a chance on," said Jon Carpenter, the football coach at Capital High School. "If there's any chance that looks like they can be injured in that way, we keep them off the field."
Carpenter said he defers to his athletic trainer on every medical decision, just to be safe.
"I've always figured I'm not smart enough to make medical decisions; if I were, I'd make medical money," he said. "So I go to him with every question."
Contact writer Shay Maunz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4886.