FARMINGTON – Speak up. Inform. Educate.
Those three simple steps could be the difference in decreasing and ultimately preventing concussions in student-athletes.
From something as small as starting conversations to improving the quality of protective sports equipment, medical experts, coaches and other athletic department personnel weighed in on the subject during today's concussion symposium at the Farmington Civic Center.
"Concussion's a hot topic out there. Every day in the news, even in the Daily Times last Sunday, it's huge. The thing is, it's been around for a long time. I think we're finally recognizing that people are really getting hurt in sports," said Dr. Karen LeComte, a neurologist at San Juan Regional Medical Center.
About 100 first responders were also in attendance.
There were four separate presentations ("Blindsided," "Smelling Salts," "The Training Room" and "Post Game Review"), as well as workshops for coaches, athletic trainers, EMT workers, registered nurses and other medical personnel.
LeComte said concussions don't necessarily start with something like a fractured skull or loss of consciousness, rather they start with a simple whip of the neck or a knock on the head.
"We know the brain is extremely vulnerable 48 hours after a concussion, and it extends out several days after that. We know this from looking at chemicals that are secreted, and we can measure that," LeComte said.
When it happens repeatedly with no time for healing in-between each one, according to LeComte, autopsies show people have brains resembling that of Alzheimer's patients.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that theoretically stems from having multiple concussions, then enters the discussion.
"The brain is moving in the skull itself, and it's causing beyond microscopic damage to the brain," LeComte said. "It's really scary, and it brings up a good point about 'what do we do, stop youth sports? Do we just take the tackle out of football?' What do we do?' We're trying to answer the questions with good scientific basis."
Nolan McKim, a Bloomfield High soccer and baseball player, had some minor concussions earlier in his life.
He spent time this past January recovering from a major concussion he suffered while snowboarding up at Purgatory Resort near Durango, Colo. He said he went off a big jump and hit his head.
McKim said he thought he was dead when he saw a man with a snow-covered beard looking down at him, "pretty much" thinking it was God.
"It was definitely an experience I never had before. I was unconscious for like five minutes," McKim said. "The first three days after the concussion, I was in a dark room. No sound, not concentrating on anything. You've only got one brain, and you want to make sure you take care of it."
McKim said concussions can happen in any sport, whether football, soccer, snowboarding or even cheer leading, because of how much one moves around.
"Concussions are a really serious thing in athletics, especially with how prevalent they are. They can cause long-lasting damage, which I know," McKim said. "I stress on the soccer team with headers and slide tackling and everything like that, guys are getting hit a lot."
McKim went to Bloomfield soccer coach Scott Reid about the subject, saying it's imperative that athletes let someone know if they might be concussed so they don't keep playing while they're concussed.
"Getting back into sports a week early, when you should stay out another two weeks, it's stupid," McKim said. "In the long run, three soccer games isn't going to matter."
Dr. Deborah Waters, who works in sports medicine with Shiprock, Kirtland Central and Newcomb, said student-athletes may not report concussions because of peer pressure and pressure from family to play sports.
Waters said it's important to educate families on what the risk factors for concussions are, what the signs and symptoms are.
Common concussion symptoms include severe headache, memory loss, coordination and balance issues, irritability and sensitivity to light.
Waters said Shiprock football reported 23 concussions in the 2006 season, as well as 12 concussions during the first five games of the 2007 season.
"Since that time, we've gotten better coaching, better equipment, better conditioning," Waters said, noting that Shiprock reported just two concussions in 2016.
Combating alarming numbers
LeComte said there's an estimated 1.8-3 million concussions diagnosed in the United States per year, but some concussions are not even reported.
"Right now, what we have to do is at least prevent concussions. That's a big thing, prevent it if we possibly can. We can't prevent all, but there are things we can do," LeComte said. "That's the other thing, is to try to get people to be up and honest about what's happening to them."
Dr. Jason Lucas, an orthopedic surgeon in Farmington, said important talking points include appropriate tackling, hitting, equipment and field preparation.
"We talked to all the coaches about that. They're aware of it, and there's a lot of preventative measures that are happening today that are very beneficial," Lucas said.
Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.