Reporting Concussions, Head Injuries On The Rise in Massachusetts

According to a recent survey in Massachusetts, an increasing number of students have suffered from concussions or head injuries while playing school sports. Awareness of such injuries has increased to avoid long term cognitive problems, but a number of students keep injuries a secret, which could lead to more serious effects.

A survey submitted to the state by about 360 public and private schools showed that students across Massachusetts suffered more than 4,400 concussions or other head injuries while playing school sports during the last academic year. Large schools with robust sports programs reported the most head injuries. Boston College High School, an all-boys private school in Dorchester for grades 7 through 12, cited 63 head injuries, followed by Needham High with 58 and Andover High with 55.

“I don’t feel that we’re higher than anywhere else; I feel that we are just really conscientious and meticulous about our reporting,” said Theresa Hartel, Boston College High’s school nurse. “I have a hard time understanding how really big schools that have a lot of sports are not reporting concussions.”

According to Evan Allen of The Boston Globe, the reports released to the Globe by the state Department of Public Health under a public records request come as high schools are wrapping up their football seasons, which for many schools produce the most injuries.

This was the second year that the surveys were collected under the state’s 2010 concussion law, and about 150 more schools submitted data this time around. The total number of reported head injuries rose by about 1,000 over the previous year.

“That’s good news, not bad news,” said Carlene Pavlos, director of the Bureau of Community Health and Prevention at the Department of Public Health. “It’s not that they weren’t happening before; it’s that there was less awareness and less identification.”

Doctors and researchers point to growing evidence that an accumulation of head injuries may lead to long-term cognitive problems as awareness of the injuries’ effects increases. Despite reporting being up, some officials said that the data would be more useful if the state requested a breakdown of head injuries by individual sport and gender and not just the school’s overall total.

“Data helps drive change and education, and I think that would be an important thing for them to add,” said Desiree Jubinville, athletic trainer at Andover High School, which like many communities does its own breakdown.

Nevertheless, some schools expressed concern that they were not catching every concussion. According to experts on head injuries, low numbers raise the specter of unreported concussions – and students playing through the pain.

“When you’ve got a full-sized high school, and you’ve got concussions in the single digits, you really have to question and be concerned how good the monitoring is, and how good the concussion care is at that school,” said Dr. Neal McGrath, clinical director at Sports Concussion New England and a concussion consultant for 30 schools in the state, including Boston College High School.

Dr. McGrath said that athletes with concussions who keep playing risk turning what would be temporary symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, trouble concentrating and light sensitivity into lingering problems if they get hit again. Additionally, they also raise their chances of suffering second-impact syndrome, a rare condition thought to be caused when a player already experiencing concussion symptoms suffers additional trauma. Uncontrollable brain swelling is caused by the syndrome and it is fatal about half the time.