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Texas State University student Natasha Helmick used to play soccer for the school’s team, the Bobcats. Not only was she forced to quit soccer but also she now sometimes has trouble off the field performing mental tasks. That’s because she suffered five concussions in five years.
A new law aims to keep students safer from similar fates as they hit the playing field this school year. Texas physicians are excited about the new effort to inform students, coaches, and parents about concussions, and to keep those who have suffered a concussion out of the game until they are fully recovered. The law took effect June 17th.
“Student-athlete head injuries are serious and occur frequently,” says Theodore Spinks, MD, an Austin pediatric neurosurgeon. He is one of several Texas Medical Association physicians who worked on the new legislation, House Bill 2038 by Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) and Sen. Robert Deuell, MD (R-Greenville).
He says concussions are traumatic brain injuries that cause changes in mental function. Sufferers typically experience headaches, fogginess, fatigue, and lowered concentration. “Many concussions are unrecognized and untreated,” Dr. Spinks adds. “Not all concussions produce immediate dramatic symptoms, such as loss of consciousness. Someone untrained may easily miss the injury, including the athletes themselves.”
The new law is named after Ms. Helmick, the Texas State student. Despite her multiple concussions, one of which left her temporarily blinded in one eye, she continued playing soccer without seeking proper treatment. Today Ms. Helmick suffers from memory loss, and reportedly she was forced to surrender her soccer scholarship at Texas State. “I wish I knew more — I wish my coaches, the refs, my parents knew more about concussions,” Natasha said in a March 30 news conference with Senator Deuell and Representative Price on HB 2038.
“I see a lot of kids who have suffered multiple concussions who say, ‘Boy, if I’d known I had a concussion I would not have continued to play,’ ” Dr. Spinks says.
Under Natasha’s Law, coaches must receive training about concussions and remove a student from play if they suspect he or she has a concussion. Students who suffer brain injuries also can’t return to their sport until a physician says it is safe. “Treatment is different for each patient, but it usually includes physical and mental rest from a few days to several months to allow the brain to heal completely,” Dr. Spinks says.
Schools also must develop a concussion oversight team, consisting of multiple providers and at least one physician, which will determine appropriate return-to-play requirements based on current scientific information.
It’s important that concussion management teams evolve their return-to-play policies based on current research, Dr. Spinks says, because researchers continue to discover new information on how to treat concussions.
“Researchers are finding that there might be long-lasting effects of concussion or cumulative effects of multiple concussions,” he says. “In addition, newer studies have shown that younger patients may recover from concussions more slowly than adults because their brains are still developing.”
A 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that a person’s brain is more vulnerable to injury several days after a concussion. “An athlete who has a concussion can be reinjured,” adds Dr. Spinks. “These reinjuries can worsen severely or prolong symptoms, and can even put the student at risk for rapid brain swelling and sudden death.”
But he says the best defense is knowledge and action. “The most important thing is for these athletes to learn what a concussion is and get out of the game as soon they suffer one.”
TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 45,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 120 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.
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