Concussions occur when the brain is jostled inside the skull after a blow to the head or body. Outward symptoms of a concussion may include the following: temporary loss of consciousness, general confusion, complaints of headaches, amnesia surrounding the traumatic event, dizziness, ringing in the ears, nausea or vomiting, slurred speech, and fatigue. However, the most significant and dangerous symptom is not as readily detectable. Concussions can cause swelling of the brain, which can lead to permanent brain damage and even death if left untreated. Some concussions may initially appear minor, but they are a form of traumatic brain injury, and even minor concussions can lead to permanent brain damage without prompt medical attention.
Virginia is among a number of states that have recently passed legislation intended to promote awareness about the risks of concussions in student-athletes and the dangers of players returning to the field too soon.
In 2006, Zack Lystedt, playing for his middle school football team in Seattle, Washington, suffered a seemingly minor concussion when his head struck the ground after tackling an opponent. He never lost consciousness and was able to walk to the sideline under his own power. Zack sat out only three snaps before returning to the field. Not understanding the extent of his injury, his coaches allowed him to play the rest of the game. Soon after the final whistle, Zack collapsed on the field and was rushed by helicopter to a nearby hospital.
He underwent emergency surgery to remove part of his skull to relieve the pressure from his swollen brain. The surgery saved his life, but Zack lapsed into a coma. Three months later, he awoke to a new reality. It would be 9 more months before young Zack was able to speak a word, 13 months before he moved an arm or leg, and almost two years before he was able to eat without the assistance of a feeding tube. Zack suffered a permanent brain injury, simply because he returned to the field too soon instead of being sent for immediate medical treatment.
In 2009, his native Washington state passed the "Zack Lystedt Law", designed to prevent this tragedy from occurring to another player by mandating a procedure for student-athletes to receive clearance to return to the field after sustaining a concussion or head injury. Using this pioneering legislation as a model, thirty-two states have passed their own version of the "Zack Lystedt Law" as of December 2011.
Virginia's variation of this law was enacted on April 11, 2010, and went into effect on July 1, 2011. The purpose of the legislation is to inform and educate student-athletes, their parents and guardians, and coaches and trainers about the risks of concussions, the criteria for removal from and return to play, and the dangers of not reporting the injury and continuing to play. The legislation has three requirements for school districts:
- Before a student will be permitted to play any sport, both the student-athlete and his or her legal parent or guardian must annually sign and return a form acknowledging receipt and understanding of the rules and regulations concerning concussions; and
- A student-athlete who appears to have suffered a concussion must be removed from the game or practice immediately and will not be permitted to continue for at least the remainder of that day; and
- Any student-athlete suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury must be cleared to play in writing by a licensed health care professional trained in the evaluation and management of concussions before returning to play or practice.
Although this legislation is an excellent first step, heartbreaking stories like Zack Lystedt's will continue to occur until parents, coaches, and student-athletes educate themselves about the dangers of concussions. Playing through even minor head injuries can have tragic and permanent consequences.