Sports safety has advanced greatly from the days when athletes laughed off “getting their bell rung,” and just shook it off and returned to the game. Horror stories of the cumulative effects of sports-related concussion – exemplified by tragic tales of former National Football League players driven to debilitation, premature death and even suicide, and recently spotlighted in the based-on-a-true-story, 2015 film “Concussion” starring Will Smith – have dramatically changed that macho attitude.
From teaching better fundamental techniques to prevent injuries in youth sports; to making players, parents, coaches and officials more aware of concussion symptoms in high school and travel sports; to more intense sideline training and monitoring at the intercollegiate and professional levels, almost every organized faction of dedicated athletic competition has taken steps to better identify and treat brain trauma.
But one group of athletes might still not get all that protective attention – those who play club and intramural sports at colleges and universities. That’s why Paula Davis-Huffman, assistant professor of nursing, chose to do her doctoral research on these athletes.
“Sports clubs are in the middle area no one is paying attention to,” said Davis-Huffman, a pediatric nurse practitioner. “We give a lot of attention to pediatric patients up through high school, then some young athletes jump to NCAA or professional sports, where they are closely monitored. But in between, that’s where sports clubs live.”
Working with Kelley Henderson, an instructor in the athletic training program in the College of Health Professions and Social Work, Davis-Huffman started her study by surveying students on whether they had ever sustained or believe they had sustained one or more concussions, and if they knew what to do if a concussion is suspected. Of about 60 who responded, nine said they believed they had one or more concussions.
“What I found interesting is that those who responded who had a concussion seemed to have the least amount of knowledge,” Davis-Huffman said. Among her study’s recommendations are that sports clubs and intramural programs mandate annual education for participants modeled after NCAA guidelines, conduct pre-participation testing for those who have sustained a concussion or have other at-risk conditions, and implement a sideline assessment procedure when a concussion is suspected.
The good news, Davis-Huffman said, is that FGCU’s Campus Recreation already has what she calls a “very good concussion policy that’s spot-on as far as what should be done.” That policy stems from a 2013 collaboration between Student Health Services and Campus Recreation.
Even at the intramural level, where it isn’t feasible to screen and monitor all 2,000 or so students who play those sports, FGCU does what it can to protect participants. Campus Rec provides at least two certified student officials trained by the Red Cross in CPR for the professional rescuer at every intramural event, and they are equipped and empowered to pull injured students out of play and call emergency rescuers, if necessary. But as Carl Bleich, intramural sports and special events coordinator in Campus Rec, puts it, “We see more cut fingers and rolled ankles than we see serious injuries like a concussion … our competition is more recreational in nature.”
Of the more than 600 FGCU students who participate annually in the morecompetitive club sports, an estimated 260 are playing high-contact games – hockey, rugby, soccer and wrestling – along with athletic activities during which dangerous falls can take place, such as equestrian events and cheerleading (“Cheerleading has a very high risk of concussion,” Davis-Huffman said).
According to Dr. Kevin Collins, FGCU director of health services, all students who participate in high-risk sports undergo pre-participation, baseline neurocognitive testing. If they are suspected of being concussed, students are referred to Student Health Services for post-injury testing within 24 hours, and they must get a doctor’s clearance before returning to play. Additionally, all coaches and students receive training on avoiding and recognizing concussion, and the importance of removing athletes from play immediately.
Collins said the SHS-Campus Rec collaboration not only has improved safety for club athletes, but also has “prepared SHS to provide better care to all our patients.” “After all, most concussions are not related to sports; they are more commonly caused by auto accidents, falls and other injuries,” Collins said. “With athletes, the focus is generally on ‘return to play,’ but SHS focuses on ‘return to learn’ because all of our patients are students first, athletes second, and the proper management of concussions focuses on allowing the brain to rest in order to recover.”
According to Davis-Huffman, “There’s a lot of responsibility on the students to recognize that perhaps a concussion has happened, and taking action can be difficult to do. The most important thing we can do is make sure they have the education to realize concussion is serious.”