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Concussions: A Potential Solution to Youth Football's Largest Problem in 2011

In honor of the Super Bowl last night, I thought we'd lead off the week talking about football here at Schooled in Sports. But we're not going to break down Aaron Rodgers' heroics; instead, we're going to take a further look at one of football's biggest problems: the growing presence of concussions in the game.

Don't think it's that big of a deal? According to a recent study that examined the concussion trends of more than 150,000 high school student-athletes spanning 12 sports (six boys' and six girls') between 1997 and 2008, football accounted for 53 percent of the 2,651 concussions reported during that period.

In reality, there probably hasn't been a sudden swath of football-based concussions. Yes, today's athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, and better-trained than ever before, but concussion awareness is only a very recent phenomenon.

Listen to what youth football coach Carmen Roda told CNN recently:

"If a kid came out [of a game], he got a hard hit, what we used to call a 'stinger' or a 'ding,' we would simply ask, 'Are you OK?' and send him back in if he said yes," Roda said. "Now if we see a kid with a big hit, we're checking on them to see if they're OK, and we're asking different kinds of questions to get the answers."

Roda told CNN that football today isn't the same as it was 20 years ago, and thus, coaches (especially at the youth level) must make an effort to teach the game differently.

Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard University football player and WWE wrestler who retired due to concussions back in 2004, has become one of the country's leading advocates for concussion research and concussion awareness.

"If we aren't talking about making relatively dramatic changes to the game in a public way, ... then people are OK with kids getting a degenerative brain disease from playing football," Nowinski told CNN.

Nowinski isn't exaggerating. High school student-athletes who suffered two or more concussions were more likely to report physical, emotional, and cognitive problems, according to a study that appears in the February issue of Neurosurgery.

Long story short, coaches and athletes alike are becoming more aware of the long-term implications of concussions.

Two weeks ago, I mapped out what states are doing on a policy level to try and prevent student-athletes from re-entering games after suffering concussions. Lawmakers recently reintroduced legislation in Congress aimed at educating student-athletes and their parents about the risks of concussions, which would also emphasize a "when in doubt, sit out" policy.

On the bright side, schools may eventually have a new tool at their disposal that would dramatically ease the process of diagnosing concussions in student-athletes.

According to a recent study in Neurology, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have developed something called the King-Devick test, which was a "near-perfect gauge of whether a concussion had occurred" when tested on boxers and mixed martial artists.

The K-D test is a two-minute exercise that tracks subtle vision problems in athletes suspected of having concussions. The subject reads rows of single-digit numbers laid out in various ways on a page; when the subject can't track and focus on specifics, there's an increased chance that they're suffering some type of brain impairment. (See an example of the test here.)

"Fifty percent of the brain's pathways are devoted to vision," said Dr. Laura Balcer, a study co-author, according to CNN. "By doing this test, we can potentially catch a lot of what's going on with overall cognitive function and how impaired an athlete can be following a concussion."

In the study, 39 boxers and mixed martial artists received the K-D test before and after a nine-minute sparring match, and the after-match scores were compared with the baseline before-match scores. Athletes who suffered a concussion took an average of six seconds longer to complete the test; those who suffered no brain trauma didn't see any change in their K-D scores.

The boxers that were suspected of a concussion during the study also underwent a more comprehensive test called the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation. The boxers who scored poorly on the K-D test also scored poorly on the MACE test, "while none of those without head trauma failed the MACE," according to the study.

Granted, the study's authors expressed caution in using the K-D test as the sole method of diagnosing concussions, especially given the small sample size of the study.

"Concussion is a complex type of brain injury," said Kristin Galetta, the study's lead author, in a news release. "The K-D test is only one test on the sidelines, though, and the diagnosis of concussion requires a combination of tests and the input of medical professionals."

"We are studying other cohorts of athletes who may not suffer overt head trauma or where there are different mechanisms of concussion," said Dr. Steven Galetta, a co-author of the study, in a news release. "We do need to validate this in other populations of athletes."

Time will tell if the K-D test can become the go-to sideline test for student-athletes suspected of concussions.

But with concussion awareness in youth sports showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, schools can only hope for cost-effective medical advances like the K-D test that would allow schools to ensure the safety of student-athletes without going bankrupt.

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