You hear about it too often in pro football -- a player being sidelined after suffering a concussion. What doesn't make headlines as often are the thousands of concussions suffered each year by American youth who play sports.
“Concussions have become an epidemic among student-athletes who play football, soccer, rugby, hockey and other contact sports,” says Dr. Elad Levy, a University of Buffalo neurosurgeon and co-founder of the Program for Understanding Childhood Concussions and Stroke. “A concussion sustained by a youth athlete strikes their growing brain, and even mild concussions can result in long-term problems, particularly if an athlete is allowed to return to play too soon.”
A study released in October 2011 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that youth concussions are on the rise. Almost 250,000 children ages 10 to 19 were treated at emergency rooms for concussions in 2009, up from 150,000 in 2002.
Playing it safe
Responding to the growing concern about concussions in youth sports, insurance company Chartis and the student insurance division of banking giant Wells Fargo have teamed up to establish a first-of-its-kind concussion care program. The program offers a higher level of concussion diagnosis and treatment than had been available, organizers say.
The Play It Safe Concussion Care Program, now available in 23 states, features Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT). ImPACT is a computer program used by many pro, college and high school sports teams to measure things like a player's memory, word recognition and pattern recognition. Under the Play it Safe Concussion Care Program, young athletes are required to take a baseline ImPACT test at the beginning of the playing season. They're periodically tested throughout the season, especially after a concussion, to determine whether their skills have declined.
This type of concussion assessment can help evaluate an athlete's post-injury condition and can track recovery to enable a return to competition.
“Doctors have learned over the past five to 10 years that concussions can have long-term consequences on the health, memory and learning capacity of young athletes if not properly identified and treated,” says John Breckenridge, senior vice president of Wells Fargo Insurance Services.
Extra layer of protection
For 400 student-athletes playing a three-month season, the cost of the Chartis-Wells Fargo program amounts to about $2,000, or $5 per athlete, and includes the ImPACT testing. While schools typically pay for the Play it Safe Concussion Care program, some youth athletic booster clubs and private donors have absorbed the cost. The insurance covers treatment costs beyond what the student's personal health insurance will pay for; the program provides $25,000 worth of coverage for diagnosis and management of a concussion, with no deductible.
“In most cases, the student-athlete is covered by their parents’ primary insurance,” Breckenridge says. “Our policy offers an excess insurance coverage that pays beyond any primary insurance the athlete may have. If the student is on Medicaid, our plan would serve as their primary coverage.”
The Chartis-Wells Fargo program also teaches schools and parents about recognizing the symptoms of concussion, seeking appropriate treatment and ensuring young athletes don’t go back to competition before they've fully healed.
Roger Blake, associate executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in the state, says the Chartis-Wells Fargo program safeguards a family when a student-athlete suffers a sports-related concussion.
“Schools require students to be covered by their parent’s insurance plan in order to participate in a sport, but that level of coverage greatly varies,” Blake says. “Many children are only seen by a family physician, not a neurologist, if their insurance doesn’t cover seeing a specialist.”
The lowdown on concussions
While an estimated 92,000 high school athletes suffer concussions each year, many high schools haven't instituted formal policies about how sports-related head injuries are treated or when injured athletes may return to play. A study released by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital showed that between 2005 and 2008, about 40 percent of athletes who suffered concussions were allowed to return to play too soon.
As of October 2011, more than 30 states had concussion-related laws on the books regarding student-athletes. While the laws vary, most include requirements that an athlete be removed from a game if it's suspected that he has suffered a concussion, then be referred to a medical professional who has concussion expertise and be given a doctor's authorization to compete again.
In addition to ensuring that all student-athletes are covered by concussion insurance, Levy, the University of Buffalo neurosurgeon, encourages parents to invest in the proper equipment.
“Purchasing protective gear such as a helmet may be the best money you spend to protect your child,” he says. “I’ve seen kids who couldn’t finish the school year because of headaches, memory loss and other symptoms that can result from sustaining a concussion.”