Concussions remain at the forefront of high school athletics

Desert Vista student Gavin Chavez, “right,” gave up football to focus on his long-term health after suffering numerous concussions throughout his playing career dating back to 7th grade. His father, Gary, as assistant at Desert Vista, said he respects his son’s decision. (AFN File Photo)

Head injury awareness has increased at an exponential rate in the past decade, leading to monumental strides at the high school athletic level.

The rate of concussions continues to grow across high school sports, amid growing efforts to prevent head trauma and protect the safety of athletes. The medical field’s leaps in awareness on head injuries has led to a categorization on different types of traumatic brain injuries. The most prominent on the high school athletic level are concussions.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a concussion is a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth.

“There has been a really strong progression towards really addressing that aspect of head injuries,” Highland High School athletic trainer David Hayward said. “We have focused on head injuries and made sure athletes are safe and not playing with anything that potentially involves a

head injury. Concussions are the lowest grade of brain injury, but they can turn into something really big.”

Certain levels and sports see higher rates of concussions than others. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, boys’ football, girls’ soccer and boys’ ice hockey are the three sports with the highest concussion rates.

Concussions are most commonly found in instances of falls or collisions with other athletes. From sport to sport, the mechanism of injury varies, even off-the-field occurrences happen.

Boys’ football, with 10.4 concussions per 10,000 athlete exposures, leads all sports in the rate of concussions. Although the most padded sport, it still comes in at the top.

“Helmets were originally created to prevent skull fractures,” Campo Verde High School athletic trainer Julia Marino said. “The technology of the cushions in the helmet and shock absorption are there. But if concussions still occur, it proves itself.”

Arizona high schools are now taking advantage of easier access to modern head injury technology. Valley schools have integrated these technologies to help prevent and enhance recovery of head injuries and concussions.

ImPACT (immediate post-concussion assessment and cognitive testing) is a computer-based head injury assessment tool used to help the medical field, and specifically athletic trainers. It has been branded as the most effective tool for creating baseline concussion tests, which are used to compare a person’s cognitive abilities after injury to before.

Modern technology like ImPACT has led to a safer and more efficient recovery process for athletes. Identifying when an athlete is back to the testing level, they were at during the baseline test is key to allowing a player to return to play safely, preventing long term injury.

Another advancement in understanding concussions has been the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 5, often referred to as the SCAT-5. The SCAT-5 is a standardized tool designed to assist with the clinical and sideline assessment of concussion.

The SCAT-5 is a good predictor of the duration of time away from sports in high school athletes with concussions, which allows athletic trainers to have a better understanding of where each specific athlete is at in their recovery process, or to even identify if a player has a concussion.

“There are always optics out there watching,” Hayward said. “If a player elicits some sort of sign or symptom of a concussion then they will be approached and addressed.”

The state, athletic program, and even specific teams have taken steps since the modern wave of awareness of these injuries.

Coaches have implemented their own methods to potentially prevent head injuries. From neck stretches to limited “hitting” time, or when players can fully use their tackling techniques. Each specific coach has their own implementations in their practice schedule.

But it isn’t always fool proof.

Gavin Chavez, a senior at Desert Vista, has been one of the many athletes in the Valley to be impacted by head injury.

Chavez is a member of the varsity football team and varsity lacrosse at Desert Vista. He has played football since the age of 6 and has picked up lacrosse since. His first concussion was minor in 7th grade, followed by a more serious one the following year.

“Gavin plays with a certain energy, he plays with all his heart,” Gavin’s father and Desert Vista assistant coach Gary Chavez said. “He was an impact player.”

Chavez stayed symptom free until his first game his junior year. But in that first game Chavez was hit hard on a kickoff return, leading to another concussion with microfractures detected. Six games later, and almost a month and half of recovery, Chavez was cleared to return to the field.

In his first game back Chavez was injured yet again on a special teams play.

“Special team plays are just so dangerous,” Gary said. “Players are flying around the field, and it results in more injuries than any other plays. Gavin got unlucky and just got in a couple bad situations.”

Chavez was forced to make a decision after his latest concussion: Try to play or give up the sport to focus on his long-term health.

He showed maturity in his decision.

“He could have made an impact in his last season, but he chose his health,” Gary said. “We were going to support him with any decision he made, whether he wanted to take all the precautions in order to play. One day he decided to call it a career and look towards long term health and stability.”

The state and the Arizona Interscholastic Association have implemented rules over the years to help combat the rate of concussions. From changing kickoff alignment rules, and adding defenseless player and helmet to helmet rules, the AIA has implemented new ideas to prevent higher rates of injury.

All athletes and coaches have to complete “Brain Book,” which is an educational program that the AIA mandates statewide.

The awareness and the level of education on head injuries has raised, which has allowed athletes like Chavez to make decisions to benefit their long-term health where historically long-term brain health has not been in the forefront.

The new wave of concussion awareness and modern implementations has led to new methods of prevention, diagnosis, and recovery.

“I feel we are really going in the right direction when it comes to concussions,” Hayward said. “There is still just a lot of research out there to do to really figure out about a young developing brain and how it could be impacted.”