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HHS studying head injuries with use of ImPACT study

In sports, especially contact sports, athletes constantly face the risk of injury. Head injury is a special concern, as trauma caused to the brain through a concussion can sometimes have lasting effects. This year, Hastings High School began using a testing program to help assess the severity of a concussion for its student-athletes, as well as make sure they don't get back on the field again until they're fully recovered.

The test, appropriately, is called ImPACT (Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing). Students who opt to participate take an initial test that establishes a baseline for cognitive ability. The test is divided into six modules, each of which test different areas such as visual and verbal memory, processing speed and reaction time.

"Basically, it takes measurements of how the brain functions when it's in a healthy state," said Athletic Director Tom Johnson.

Should a student-athlete suffer a concussion, the test can be used to determine the severity of the concussion by comparing test results from after the injury to the baseline results. The brain typically slows down after a concussion, Johnson explained.

"Before our athletes are able to return to play, they must re-take the ImPACT test," Johnson said.

Each test taken is compared to the baseline results, which then tell medical personnel and coaches when the athlete has fully recovered.

"When those two tests are similar enough to show that the brain is functioning well again, that, as well as some other factors, will help us determine when that athlete is able to return to play," Johnson said.

ImPACT is just one way the school is working to keep its students at their best. Athletic staff take a proactive approach by closely monitoring football and hockey helmets to ensure they're as safe as possible. No helmet is concussion-proof, Johnson said, but some are better than others, and those are the ones the athletes use.

Still, statistics show that about 10 percent of student-athletes will suffer a concussion in the course of a year, and Hastings has seen the numbers hold true here. This fall, there were about a dozen concussions. Fewer are expected in the winter and spring, Johnson said, since there are fewer contact sports in those seasons.

Traditionally, concussions are identified and handled through a series of verbal or written questions. Chelsea Meyer, a certified athletic trainer for HHS, carries a pencil-and-paper test with her whenever she's at a sporting event or practice, so she can conduct a test right away.

If there's any doubt about whether a student-athlete has suffered a concussion, he or she is immediately removed from play until they've been examined by a doctor or trained medical personnel, Johnson said.

Concussed athletes have to wait until their symptoms have been gone 24 hours before starting the return-to-play program. The five-day program starts with light aerobic exercise and progresses to sport-specific training, non-contact drills and full-contact drills. Each stage must be signed by Meyer, and a physician clears a student to return to play after all stages are completed, if symptoms don't return, Meyer explained.

HHS also works with a neuro-cognitive specialist in Hudson.

Even after a full exam, traditional concussion testing has an element of subjectivity to it.

"Concussions are hard because it's so subjective," Meyer said.

"The ImPACT concussion test is much more objective," Johnson said. "You really can't fool it."

"The excellent thing about computer tests is that we have a baseline," Meyer said.

Another benefit of the test is that it's used nationally.

"It's spreading through the colleges and into the high schools," Johnson said.

Such a large presence allows ImPACT to collect normative data that can be used as a baseline for athletes who want to take the test after a concussion, but didn't take a test to establish their personal normal results.

HHS started offering the test to athletes this past fall. Student-athletes who want to take the test take it for the first time before their season begins. About 65 students can take the test at once, as it's administered on computers in the school's labs.

So far, feedback has been positive. Students find the concept interesting, Johnson said, and have been taking it seriously. Some parents have contacted Johnson to tell him the test makes them feel more comfortable sending their students back out to play.

"I think it gives them a peace of mind that they really appreciate," Johnson said.

Coaches also like it because it makes the decision to return to play an objective one, and thus a safer one.