For the first time since 2010, student athletes participating in high school athletics in Howard County this fall will not be required to participate in ImPACT concussion baseline testing.
This testing will now be conducted on a voluntary basis, still available to any athletes who choose to participate in the program — which is designed to provide tangible data to help determine when it is safe for an athlete to return to play in the event of a head injury.
Howard County Athletic Coordinator John Davis said the change comes on the heels of the findings and recommendations that came out of the fifth International Conference on Concussion in Sport that was held in Berlin last October.
Among the conclusions from that conference, as documented in the consensus statement released, was that “At this time, the widespread routine use of baseline Computerized Neuropsychological Testing is not recommended in children and adolescents, given problems with reliability over time and insufficient evidence of diagnostic or prognostic value.”
Davis said those findings resulted in the recommendation to move to a voluntary system being brought to him by Dr. Gerard Gioia — the county’s leading expert on concussion research as part of the county’s sports medicine advisory committee — and Yvette Rooks — Maryland Chairperson for the advisory committee.
Howard County schools interim superintendent Michael Martirano then recently approved the proposal.
“Right now, per the information provided to us, there is insufficient evidence that [the baseline testing] is a significant portion of concussion management. That’s the recommendation that the top neurologists are giving us, and we want to go with that,” Davis said.
Howard County has long been considered ahead of the curve in concussion prevention and detection. Former county athletic coordinator Mike Williams began counting concussions in 2007, documenting 72 that school year.
Then prior to the fall 2010 season, with certified athletic trainers in place at all 12 public high schools and the ImPACT concussion management system already adopted, the county made it mandatory for athletes participating in contact sports to undergo a baseline test prior to tryouts. The testing was optional for non-contact sports such as cross country, golf, indoor and outdoor track and tennis.
Initially, Howard County was the only county in the state making this concussion testing mandatory. In 2011,Carroll County followed suit in requiring students playing a contact sport to take a memory and mental agility test that could be used as a comparison point in an instance where a concussion was suspected.
Other surrounding counties in Maryland, such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford have been operating under the voluntary testing system the last five years.
While the change in protocol in Howard County means student athletes can now participate without the testing, Howard High Athletics and Activities Manager Michael Duffy says the awareness and education components about concussions remain unchanged. He also adds that he expects the majority of athletes in contact sports to continue to undergo baseline testing.
“We are going to continue recommending it for all our kids because it doesn’t cost them anything and there is no harm in doing it. The way I look at it, the more information the better,” Duffy said. “And in our case, most of our kids that are planning to play fall sports were actually already tested back in the spring before school ended, which has been the operation for several years in order to make sure all the proper paperwork is in place prior to tryouts.”
Athletes and their parents will still be required to sign off that they know the concussion testing is available to them, even if they choose to not participate.
And when it comes to diagnosing and monitoring student athletes for possible concussions, those policies and procedures remain unchanged. Individuals who have not undergone baseline testing will now have their post-injury test performance compared to the normative values for the test.
Symptom assessments and neuropsychological testing of the injured athlete will be conducted as they have been since the program was first put in place.
“Nothing changes in regard to the care of the student athlete at all and it continues to be top notch, the best available,” Davis said. “Removing this portion of the process should not be confused with lessening the care provided.”