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A state law taking effect July 1 will keep Virginia’s student athletes off the field if suspected of having a concussion.

Known as the Student-Athlete Protection Act, the law would bench players until they receive medical clearance from a doctor or athletic trainer before returning to a game.

The law was unanimously approved by the Virginia General Assembly and signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in April 2010.

“The fear about concussions is that if it’s not properly managed … a student athlete will return to participation too soon and cause more serious damage,” said Shane Caswell, director of the Sports Medicine Assessment, Research and Testing Laboratory at George Mason University. Caswell partnered with Fairfax County Public Schools in researching concussions experienced by high school students during the last 11 years. A study on this research was published in January.

“Concussions are pretty common. In the last 11 years [the number of] concussions [in the county] have risen 4.5 percent,” he said. “We don’t know if they are just reporting them more now or what ….”

In the study, data was collected from 25 high schools. The result was 2,651 recorded concussions observed during nearly 11 million athletic exposures. More than half of the recorded concussions were experienced during football games or practices. Girls’ soccer ranked second in percentage of concussions, according to the research. When competing in similar sports, women experienced almost twice the risk of concussion over their male counterparts.

Concussions aren’t always caused by head-on collisions, Caswell said.

“It’s that rapid change in acceleration of the brain that causes a concussion,” he said. Because of this, players who re-enter a game before being medically cleared could further injure themselves.

“I think this law is going to be very effective,” Caswell said. “Most concussions tend to resolve themselves in seven to 10 days. But the risk of [further injury] happens when people don’t take that time and get further injured.”

A medical assessment of a student with a head injury would likely prevent the athlete from re-entering a game, Caswell said.

“The clinical judgment of the athletic trainer is critical. There is no scan; there is no imaging that you can get. You can’t go to the ER and get a neuro-scan, an MRI that would see that,” he said.

Part of the athletic trainer’s assessment of a student is his or her response and reactions to stimuli, as well as assessing the athlete physically, he said.

“The reason I researched concussions was I grew up in New York. There was no athletic trainer ... I played ice hockey and took a header into the boards, and got a concussion,” Caswell said. “My coach didn’t really come over or anything. I was put in the next cycle ... No one noticed that I was skating around and my stick was broken. I could have had serious long-term problems.”

Situations like this, he said, are what the law aims to avoid.

Fairfax County Public Schools Athletic Training Program Administrator Jon Almquist said the school system has been ahead of the pack when it comes to recognizing concussions and keeping students from further harm.

“Recognizing the signs and symptoms is one thing. Doing something about it is different,” he said. The new law will likely not change too much for local athletes and coaches. “The biggest impact in the law for us is going to be the accountability. That we make sure all students and parents are educated before they get on the field.”

Part of the school system’s outreach is an online education program for parents and students, which was available beginning last week. The website quickly drew nearly 1,000 visitors.

Almquist said FCPS high schools record about 800 concussions a year. Since joining the school system in 1983, he said, the role and number of athletic trainers in county high schools has changed. Today, FCPS employs more than 50 athletic trainers. Almquist said he was among the few first trainers hired by the school system in 1983. Today, on average, each high school has two trainers.

“One of the things we’re trying to open the doors to is that it’s not only athletes that get concussions,” Almquist said. “You can bump your head in band.”

The frustrating thing about concussions, he said, is that the symptoms are not always immediately apparent.

“When a kid walks down the hall and seems to be fine, it’s frustrating,” Almquist said. A student can seem to have recovered, however, he added, “but by third period after he’s had all that extra work he’s struggling to respond and it’s starting to hit him again.”

Both Almquist and Caswell said the new law will not lower the number of concussions, but will prevent students from longer term problems or repeated brain injury caused by re-entering games too soon.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com