Area schools partner with MHSAA on concussion testing

The numbers are hard to ignore.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.6-3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year in the United States, with 5-10 percent of athletes suffering a concussion in any given sport season.

With those statistics in mind, the Michigan High School Athletic Association is heading up an ambitious effort this fall, partnering with 70 member schools for training in two pilot sideline concussion testing programs geared at assisting in the decision-making process of removing athletes from activities following possible concussion events.

Six area schools have been selected to participate in the two pilot programs, with Bear Lake, Brethren and Stanton Central Montcalm taking part in the XLNTbrain Sport software program, while St. Mary Lake Leelanau, Shelby and Scottville Mason County Central are participating in the King-Devick Test.

The King-Devick Test and XLNTbrain Sport are part of a three-pronged advance by the MHSAA that will be used to monitor nearly 10,000 high school student-athletes across the state among all four classes.

Designed by Dr. Harry Kerasidis, the Maryland-based XLNTbrain Sport software features a set of balance and web-based neuro-cognitive tests that are administered prior to the start of the season in order to create a baseline measurement of an athlete’s reaction time, attention, inhibition, impulsivity, memory, information processing efficiency and executive function. Emotionality, anxiety and mood are also assessed by the test.

The test requires participants to remember a series of words, including which words were displayed on the screen first.

Following a potential head injury, a sideline assessment is conducted using a tablet or smartphone with those results then compared against the athlete’s baseline measurements. XLNTbrain Sport documents the severity of the concussion and provides a guide for decision making regarding treatment and recovery time. The program can also report results to coaches, training staff, medical professionals and parents via email.

For Brethren volleyball coach Rachel Edmondson, XLNTbrain Sport provides her and her staff with a more objective tool in determining the severity of an athlete’s head injury.

“Before we really get going with practices and before we get going with matches, it’s giving us a baseline on where our athletes are,” Edmondson said. “From there, it’s going to give us questions, or at least ideas, if something happens.

“It’s just another resource for us on the sidelines of deciding if this is a concussion or not.”

Edmondson has witnessed firsthand the rise in concussions and brain-related injuries.

“We’ve definitely in the last year to two years have seen concussions come to the forefront,” Edmondson said. “I’m really excited to use this. Even in the last couple years, we’ve seen players dive to the floor and bump heads with somebody else or the ball. Even somebody during practice took a really hard hit, and you could tell that they weren’t quite right. With this, we can right away pull that app up and start asking them the questions from the get-go.”

Teresa Szur, St. Mary athletic director, volleyball coach and softball coach, says the technology behind the King-Devick Test is beneficial in ensuring the safety of her school’s student-athletes.

Szur was motived to apply for inclusion into the program after an on-field incident during a St. Mary softball game. Following a rough play at the plate, the player was sent to the emergency room and later diagnosed with a concussion.

“The reason why I picked this program is because one of the things that she and her parents talked about was that they were having her read something off a computer screen to check her vision and her eye movement,” Szur said. “They were able to track things on a computer screen to determine whether she had a concussion or not.”

Associated with the Mayo Clinic and validated in more than 50 peer-reviewed articles published in medical journals, the Illinois-based test is a rapid eye movement screening evaluation that requires athletes to read single-digit numbers that are displayed on a tablet computer. The timed test serves to detect impairments of eye movement, attention, language, concentration and other symptoms of abnormal brain function.

“I think this is just going to be another tool in our box so that we can make sure that our kids are always safe,” Szur said. “It removes from the coach having to do a more subjective question and answer protocol that the MHSAA has put together for us. It’s more objective, and I think also it’s better for the parents, because the parents want to see their kids play. Ultimately, their safety is what we need to be concerned about.”

Szur estimates that 65 St. Mary student-athletes will participate in the pilot program.

For many school districts statewide, budget cuts have also forced the elimination of athletic training staffs, thus leaving a coaching staff with a limited knowledge of brain injuries.

With that in mind, Mason County Central athletic director Tim Genson believes that his school can greatly benefit from a program like the King-Devick Test.

“One of the things that’s nice for Mason County Central is, unlike a lot of schools participating in the pilot program, we don’t have access to training support,” Genson said. “This program gives our coaching staff and personnel the ability to conduct baseline tests and determine if a student is having issues.

“Of all that I’ve read on the King-Devick Test, it seems to be a reliable program and an objective one. We no longer will have as much doubt because of this program, and I think in the long run, this program could prove to be beneficial.”

The MHSAA will become the first state association this fall to offer pilot sideline concussion testing. Along with the pilot programs, the MHSAA will also be the first to mandate record-keeping of all potential concussion events, including detection and an athlete’s return to the playing field.

“These pilot programs are intended to not only improve what’s actually happening on the sidelines at practices and contests in these communities that are part of the pilot programs, they’re intended to spread the word of the need for improved concussion detection across every community,” MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts said. “We hope these schools involved will become involved in their leagues and conferences and with their peers across the state as we expand the awareness of the need for better sideline detection and provided ways to get it done.”

In addition to the pilot programs, the MHSAA will become the first state association to provide all high school and junior high/middle school members with insurance to cover any concussion-related medical expenses that aren’t already covered by the athlete’s family provider, with no cost to the families or schools.