Kathryn Thacker got several concussions in her high school soccer games. She said she still has problems remembering things now.
“When you break a leg, you can keep going to school — it doesn’t affect your thinking abilities,” she said. “But when you have a concussion, it feels like you almost don’t have anything.”
Stories of concussions are often discussed following deaths of high-profile athletes due to concussion injuries. For high school athletes, the risk can be amplified — youths take longer to recover from concussions than adults and can leave the athlete vulnerable to future concussions.
Since the beginning of high school football season two months ago, eight players have died in the United States due to various injuries. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that from 2001 to 2009, sports and recreational-related concussion injuries increased 57 percent among those aged 19 or younger.
Awareness and prevention among high school athletes has improved as casualties dominate headlines.
Ciaccia, now a first-year at the University of Toledo, had his first concussion as a first-year at Richard J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem. The difference in awareness was obvious when he got his second concussion his junior year.
“After my first concussion, the trainer didn’t really make me do many tests,” he said. “After my second one, every day when I was back at school I had to check in with the trainer to perform these tests.”
Concussion education is uniform across the state after the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act was passed in 2011. Parents, coaches and students have to sign an information sheet regarding symptoms of concussions and return-to-play protocols annually. Schools that fail to comply are fined.
Additional programs like the concussion baseline tests, access to medically-trained athletic trainers and helmets depend on the school.
Thacker, now a first-year at UNC, got her first concussion in her sophomore year at Riverside High School in Durham, but she didn’t know much about concussions then and continued to play the game. She never did a baseline concussion test so she had no idea how bad her concussion was.
Nick DeFrancesco, a junior soccer player at Panther Creek High School in Cary, said he has access to the baseline testing every two years. Liam Tastet, sophomore soccer player at Apex Friendship High School has to take a concussion test online before the season.
Orange High School works with the Duke Sports Medicine Concussion Clinic to provide student athletes with free online baseline concussion testing, which usually costs $30 per test.
Athletic trainers can follow up on injuries and provide immediate care to student athletes during regular training.
The Youth Sports Safety Alliance reports that only 42 percent of high schools have athletic trainers.
“There is no college or professional game played without an athletic trainer,” said Emily Gaddy, head athletic trainer at Orange High School. “The importance of athletic trainers at the high school level is a battle that we’re still fighting.”
Other schools get weekly free visits from physical therapists. Thacker met with a physical therapist from Duke University twice a week in school after she was concussed.
“The benefit of me being on campus full time is that I know my athletes, I know their personalities, I know if they’re trying to hide something or cover up,” Gaddy said. “So when I give these tests I know that’s not the athlete I had a week ago.”
Gaddy is working to translate research into practice. One of her latest plans is to engage her athletes in neck-strengthening exercises because studies have shown this can reduce concussions.
Orange High School reconditions or buys new football and lacrosse helmets yearly. Middle schools in Orange County recondition football helmets yearly and lacrosse helmets every four years.
Some schools can afford to buy newer, costlier football helmets with more cushion.
Cade Barnhill, a junior football player at Northern High School in Durham, said quarterbacks and those on the varsity team usually get to wear the more expensive helmets.
“We only have so many of those helmets,” Barnhill said.
Thacker said she wishes doctors told the athletes more about what it feels like to have a concussion.
“I think all athletes are very stubborn,” she said. “We had to sign the form before playing (in high school), but it’s just words on paper, you know — we’re just signing this just so I can play. You never think about it seriously.”