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Ruiz, Codey Bills To Improve Concussion Prevention/Treatment Measures In NJ Schools Advance

A view of the Senate Chambers from the 2010-2011 Senate Reorganization.

Include Cheerleaders In Head Injury Safety Program, Urge Schools to Implement Baseline Testing To Measure Condition of Athletes Post-Injury

TRENTON – Two bills that would boost the state’s extensive efforts to protect high school student athletes from head injuries were approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate Education Committee.

Sponsored by Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, the first bill (S-3053) would provide specifically that cheerleaders and their coaches are included in the student-athlete head injury safety program required by a new law signed last year. The law made New Jersey the state with the most comprehensive concussion prevention and treatment program in the country.

“New Jersey has done a tremendous amount of work to protect high school students participating in sports from head injuries. Given the documented number of student-athletes who have suffered concussions, and the potential long-term affects of these injuries, we know that the education and training that our state laws require is a critical component of our athletics programs,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex/Union). “However, statistics show that cheerleaders are also at high risk of suffering head injuries. This legislation will ensure that cheerleaders and their coaches are included in the head injury safety program required in New Jersey schools and provided the tools that are necessary to keep them safe.”

The 2010 law, sponsored by Senators Richard J. Codey and Joseph Vitale, required the Department of Education to implement an interscholastic athletic head injury safety training program this academic year to educate school physicians, coaches and athletic trainers on the warning signs and symptoms of head and neck injuries and concussions. The law also required school districts to develop a written policy on the prevention and treatment of sports-related head injuries among student athletes, and requires the immediate removal from competition or practice of a student-athlete who sustains or is suspected of sustaining a head injury.

“Cheerleading has changed considerably in recent years and squads are integrating increasingly difficult acrobatic stunts into their routines which place them at high risk for injuries,” said Senator Ruiz. “By requiring their participation in the state’s head injury safety program, we will ensure that cheerleaders and their coaches are aware of the risk of injury involved in these activities and are adequately trained to respond if an incident occurs.”

“While many of our high school athletes participating in sports that are high risk for concussions are protected by pads, helmets and other safety equipment, cheerleaders perform extremely complex stunts with no protective gear at all,” added Senator Codey (D-Essex). “Including cheerleading in our head injury safety program will provide critical training that will better protect our students from injuries that have the potential to cause severe and long-term medical complications.”

The committee approved a second measure (SR-74), sponsored by Senator Codey, which would urge school districts to implement a program, called a baseline cognitive testing program, designed to assist in measuring the post-injury condition of a student athlete who has sustained a concussion. The process includes performing a test on student-athletes at the beginning of a season that covers attention span, working memory, sustained and selective attention time, response variability, non-verbal problem solving and reaction time. The information is used to evaluate the severity of a head injury and whether or not an injured student is recuperating.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 concussions are sustained during sport-related activity in the United States, and more than 62,000 concussions are sustained each year in high-school contact sports. While most athletes do recover, many suffer from Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS), which consists of chronic cognitive and neurobehavioral difficulties, such as loss of memory and concentration, headache, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, and anxiety.

“With so many student-athletes sustaining a concussion each year in high school contact sports, our task must not be to just prevent these injuries in the first place, but also to prevent the subsequent head injuries that can come from allowing a recovering athlete to resume play before it is safe,” said Senator Codey. “This testing program gives us the ability to gauge the condition of athletes after they have suffered a concussion, and to determine if and when it is safe for them to return to the game.”

Many athletes also suffer from Second Impact Syndrome, which can occur when a second concussion is suffered before the first concussion has properly healed, causing rapid and severe brain swelling and often catastrophic results. Second Impact Syndrome can result from even a very mild concussion that occurs days or weeks after the initial concussion and the injuries have led to approximately 30 to 40 deaths over the past decade. Preventative measures can be taken to avoid these additional injuries, if the athletes are given the proper amount of time to recover.

“Baseline tests give us the ability to judge the severity of a head injury and the extent to which a student who has sustained a concussion is recovering. This information is critical for medical professionals and coaches who are responsible for the safety of our athletes, as it would allow them to make more informed decisions about reinstating a player,” said Senator Codey. “Implementing these testing programs in all of our schools would go a long way toward protecting student-athletes against second impact syndrome and potentially would save lives.”

Both measures now head to the full Senate for a vote.