BEMIDJI – Determining that an athlete has suffered a concussion is not difficult. But because a concussion affects the brain, knowing when the injury has fully healed can be almost impossible.
In an effort to remove that gray area, Bemidji High School officials are using a before-and-after series of tests that will show when an athlete can return to duty following a head injury. The tests are financed and supported by Sanford Bemidji as part of its occupational and sports medicine programs.
“By retesting we can determine if somebody’s brain isn’t normal,” said Sanford certified trainer Jon Laakso, who serves as the trainer at BHS. “By using the test, we put their brain against their brain to see if it is still traumatized.”
Athletes at area high schools – Bemidji, Cass Lake-Bena, Blackduck and Walker-Hackensack-Akeley – will take initial tests to provide baseline information on each athlete’s brain.
If that athlete sustains a concussion, he or she will re-take the test during the healing process and the two sets of results will be compared.
Each athlete receives the baseline training every two years. The brain changes quickly during the high school years and maintaining accurate baseline data is imperative in the comparison process.
There are no right or wrong answers in the test and no one can study for it.
“We make sure that it is quiet and that the lights are dimmed to help them focus on the computer screen and to make using the computer easier,” said Tanya Clemenson, a wellness specialist at Sanford Bemidji who administered the test to the BHS athletes this week.
The computer test involves a series of word, image and letter memorization and recognition challenges.
“The tests are designed to get a picture of the mind working at a normal level,” Clemenson said. “I’m not sure that every player realizes the importance of what these tests can show.”
Individual memory and reaction time are among the data that will be collected. And if a retest shows that the effects of the concussion linger, the medical staff will know what to do in spite of what the athlete says.
“These tests will show how truthful an athlete is,” Laakso said. “It is a diagnostic tool for us to use and it’s a way for the athletes to prove to us that they are healed.”
Sometimes the tests and their results do not have the backing of parents, but Laakso has never heard a complaint from a coach.
“Since I’ve first installed the testing last November I’ve used it at least a dozen times,” he said. “One time the test showed that a kid wasn’t right yet but the parents went to a lawyer trying to get an order for him to play in a tournament because scouts were supposed to be in the audience. But the tests showed that he wasn’t ready to play yet and he didn’t play.
“But coaches understand the importance of the testing,” Laakso said. “I haven’t heard one complaint from a coach and some of them are at the point where they won’t let kids practice until they take the test.”