More than 100 8- to 14-year-olds flooded the fields at Southwood Park to complete what looked a lot like field sobriety tests: touching their fingers to their noses, walking a straight line toe to heel and reciting the months of the year backward.
“What we’re doing here today, we are actually assessing brain function,” said Cristin Rassi, an advanced practice nurse and leader of the concussion program at Illinois Neurological Institute.
By the end of this week Rassi and about 400 medical professional volunteers will have performed ImPACT neurocognitive assessments on nearly 3,000 players in the Junior Football League as coaches, parents and medical providers take a more proactive approach to protecting the children’s brain health.
As we start to better understand the long-term effects of concussions through research and high profile media reports about ex-football players and other athletes, parents, players and coaches are starting to think differently about how brain injuries are recognized and treated at all levels.
“That’s my son, actually,” Rassi said, pointing out a player completing one of the balance tests. “Believe it or not, my husband is a football coach, and I have done brain injury and concussion for a long time, so this is my way to give back to the community.”
The ImPACT tests are one of a variety of tools available to test things like memory, coordination and balance. A preseason test helps to establish a baseline.
Should a player sustain a concussion, he’d be treated by standard protocols including being pulled from activities and maybe from school. When it’s time to return, he can be re-tested to compare his results to the preseason baseline and determine if there are lingering symptoms of the concussion that aren’t obvious to parents and coaches who have historically made the decisions of when a child returns to the field.
The decision of when a child can safely return to play can be a difficult one for parents and coaches to make, especially when they’re unsure what the subtle symptoms of concussion are and a child is begging to get back to sports.
Having this baseline testing and the training provided by INI and other organizations has been a game-changer for coaches, said Gregg Lockwood, director of Morton JFL.
Coaches aren’t trained to diagnose or treat concussions, but they are better equipped now than ever before to know when to pull a player from the field, send a child to the emergency room or call an ambulance.
“It’s making our coaches a little bit more comfortable as to what to recognize, the symptoms, what to recognize for, their role and most importantly that we lean on the side of caution. If that coach has the least little bit of inkling that that player isn’t right, then he’s done. He’s shut down. We notify mom and dad and get mom and dad involved immediately,” Lockwood said.
Repeated brain injuries can have serious consequences, Rassi said, especially for developing brains. Conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy have NFL players questioning their careers. Other risks, like second impact syndrome, are rare but can be life-threatening.
Jane Kalmes, a hockey mom and physician’s assistant in a Prompt Care office, helped build up the concussion screening program within the Peoria Youth Hockey Association. She treats concussions regularly in her office and has provided sideline evaluations to children injured playing hockey or lacrosse alongside her sons.
Her own son was one of the first hockey players to benefit from PYHA’s preseason screening process last year when he sustained a concussion early in the season.
“As a parent, you have to turn around and say, ‘I’m sorry, Johnny, but your brain is more important than this game. I know it sucks, and you want to play, but we have to make sure that you’re OK to go out and play,'” Kalmes said. “Most parents are OK with that.”
And it’s not just the hard-hitting sports that can cause concussions, Kalmes said. Concussions can occur in sports such as volleyball, track and cheerleading, as well as non-competitive play, like playing on swingsets or playgrounds. While many primary care physicians and pediatricians aren’t trained in pre-concussion screenings, several brain and sports specialists in the Peoria area are, she said, such as INI, Midwest Orthopeadic Center and Great Plains Orthopeadics.