This story was clarified at 4:25 p.m. on June 27, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
High-school athletes in Montgomery County Public Schools soon will face a new, computerized test of their brain functions aimed at diagnosing and helping treat concussions.
Four sports medicine providers will provide testing to athletes at all 25 county high schools, collecting baseline data on each student’s balance, memory, concentration and problem-solving skills. That data can be compared with new data collected from athletes who might have experienced a concussion, serving as one measure of whether a player is ready to return to the field, said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the school system.
Concussions are brain injuries caused by a jolt or blow to the head, and though often considered “mild,” they can cause symptoms such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, dizziness and nausea. Repeated concussions can cause permanent neurological impairment.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said last year he wanted to implement such tests, and included funding in fiscal 2014 budget, Tofig said.
On Monday, the Board of Education approved contracts with ATI Physical Therapy, Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital of Maryland, MedStar Sports Medicine and Metro Orthopedics and Sports Therapy totaling $99,140 for the coming school year, about $18,750 of which will pay for the computer software, Tofig said.
The school system will test all athletes — even those who won’t play contact sports, Tofig said.
“We expect to administer tests to about 16,000 student athletes next year,” he wrote in an email.
The number will be smaller in the future because only new athletes will need testing.
In addition to the testing, three of those vendors are working with the school system to make athletic trainers available to some schools to test the feasibility of using more trainers in the future, but the details are still being hashed out, Tofig said.
Tom Hearn, a parent from Walt Whitman High School, said at the board meeting Monday that he would rather see all of the funds put toward athletic training, arguing that through his own research, he found the baseline testing unnecessary and unreliable.
“It’s been said by experts: If you can’t afford an athletic trainer, you shouldn’t have an athletic program,” Hearn said.
In response to Hearn’s comments, Starr said that money was added to the budget with “the very express intention of using baseline testing and then determining whether it was effective or if a different approach was necessary.”
The computer program offers a series of tests such as remembering words or designs, holding information in your head and responding quickly to instructions, said Shital Pavawalla, a neuropsychologist with Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital, which operates out of Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville and a clinic near Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park.
“What [before-and-after testing] allows us to do is look for changes in these cognitive functions,” Pavawalla said.
Any student athlete showing symptoms of concussion is immediately removed from the game, and the follow-up computer tests are recommended between 48 and 72 hours after the injury, Pavawalla said.
Each year, emergency rooms across the country treat approximately 173,000 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, among children and teenagers from birth to age 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Staff Writer Lindsey Powers contributed to this report
This story was updated to clarify that parent Tom Hearn was referring to research he knows about, not research he has done.