Doctor, trainer, coach talk concussions

Dr. Nick DiGiovine was worried he’d get some push back when Montana Sports Medicine implemented its new concussion policy to Butte schools three years ago.

What he didn’t see coming was the Bulldog football team turning that policy into a competitive advantage.

Butte High’s football team saw 18 concussions during the first season of the program. So DiGiovine and his staff at Montana Sports Medicine tried to find out why.

“A majority of those concussions were at practice,” said DiGiovine, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the St. James Montana Sports Medicine Program.

Butte High football coach Arie Grey implemented recommended changes, and the results were obvious.

“Last year there were five concussions and most of them were in games,” DiGiovine said. “We were able to reduce the number of concussions just by following our data. Butte has shown you can protect the athletes and have a winning program.”

Along with Butte High athletic trainer Michelle Gardner and Grey, DiGiovine will speak about head injuries at a presentation titled “Concussions and Coaching Strategies” at 7 p.m. Monday, April 15 at the Butte High Auditorium.

The event is free to the public.

“I think this is going to be a great talk,” said Chris Heard, the head athletic trainer for Montana Sports and for Montana Tech. “Everyone is invited from athletes, parents, football coaches, even coaches of other sports can learn something, and the general public are all welcome to attend.”

The talk comes as Senate Bill 112, which aims at protecting young athletes from the dangers of concussions, makes its way through the Montana Legislature.

That bill would basically call for other schools to step up to the level of concussion prevention that is already in place at Butte High, Butte Central, Anaconda, Twin Bridges and Montana Tech, the schools that contract with Montana Sports Medicine.

The schools associated with Montana Sports Medicine all have policies that make it mandatory for all student-athletes to participate in the program that standardizes the way concussions are treated and the way athletes are returned to action.

“Butte was accepting and supportive,” said DiGiovine, who is an orthopedic consultant for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “We really are ahead of the curve.”

High school players are given baseline tests twice during their career. Players at Tech are given one at the beginning of their career.

If a player is suspected to have a concussion, he or she will undergo a series of tests on the sideline. That includes testing balance and asking players simple questions like reciting the months of the year backward. DiGiovine said he also looks for an emotional change, such as players crying or becoming unusually passive about the game.

Once ruled concussed, an athlete must overcome several hurdles before returning to action. That includes passing the baseline test compared to results from the initial test. DiGiovine said it takes 18-21 days on average to resolve a concussion.

“Most athletes are out a few weeks,” the doctor said. “That’s one thing that’s tough to swallow.”

That also leads to confusion for players, coaches, parents and fans who see professional players return to action much sooner. For instance, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III left a game with a concussion last season only to start again the next week.

Heard said Griffin’s brain didn’t heal any faster than an average high school or college student-athlete. Money was likely the reason Griffin didn’t miss a start.

“He’s getting paid millions of dollars to risk his brain,” Heard said.

Adding to the confusion is that concussions are not obvious injuries, DiGiovine said.

“You can’t see a concussion on a CT or MRI,” he said. “It’s accepted that a torn ACL is an injury, but we weren’t quick to acknowledge a concussion is an injury because you just can’t see it.”

DiGiovine is hoping the April 15 presentation will go a long way toward changing that.

“We want to remind and inform people what a concussion is,” DiGiovine said.

“Concussions and Coaching Strategies”