New Law Targets Student-Athletes’ Concussions

With spring sports under way and summer on its way, the Virginia Department of Health wants to make sure student-athletes know there is no such thing as a “mild” concussion.

Even a “ding” – “getting your bell rung” – or what may seem to be a slight bump or blow to the head can be serious, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Concussions are an injury caused by a hit to the head that disrupts the way the cells in the brain normally work. They are one of the most commonly reported injuries in children and adolescents who participate in sports and recreation activities.

During this year’s legislative session, Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, introduced Senate Bill 652, which says:

“The Board of Education shall develop and distribute to each local school division guidelines on policies to inform and educate coaches, student-athletes, and their parents or guardians of the nature and risk of concussions, criteria for removal from and return to play, and risks of not reporting the injury and continuing to play.”

The school divisions must then create “policies and procedures for the identification and handling of suspected concussions in student-athlete.”

“The more we know about concussions, the more we know that it is not safe if you return to play before the initial concussion is healed,” Northam said during a February press conference in support of his proposal.

The bill won unanimous approval from the General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell on the April 11.

It requires athletes and their parents or guardians to review information on the short-term and long-term health effects of concussions. They then must sign a statement acknowledging that they have received that information.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has treated many high school athletes with concussions. He said many of the visits have a recurring theme: Parents tell Northam that their children are great athletes and that it’s important it is for them to be on the field for the big game.

“We have an increase in pressure to have our athletes return to play,” the senator said.

This law will relieve some of the pressure on players, coaches and parents by establishing requirements for those who’ve possibly suffered a concussion.

If a coach, trainer or team physician suspects that an athlete has suffered a concussion or other brain injury, the student must be removed immediately from the practice or game. The student-athlete cannot resume play until he or she:

• Has been evaluated by an appropriate licensed health care provider.

• Receives written clearance from that professional to return to play.

Supporters of the new law include State Health Commissioner Karen Remley, who has been an advocate of these “return to play” laws.

“Any blow to the head in a child or youth that is followed by changes in behavior, thinking or physical function needs prompt medical attention,” Remley said.

She wants students to know that if they continue to play after sustaining a concussion, they are risking a serious, long-term brain injury and, in some cases, death.

“The good news is that the majority of athletes can recover completely from a concussion and return to their original level of performance, if the initial injury is recognized and managed properly,” Remley said.

The first step under the new law is for the Virginia Board of Education to develop policies regarding concussions for local school districts. Those policies would become effective on July 1, 2011.