COLUMBIA, SC — A high school athlete who suffers a concussion will have to get approval from a physician before returning to sports activities, according to a bill being considered by the state Senate.
The bill, H.3061, has passed the House, but it was amended by a Senate committee. If the full Senate approves the bill, the House must approve the amended version before it goes to Gov. Nikki Haley.
The bill has the backing of the S.C. Medical Association, the S.C. Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina, all of which contributed to its content.
“All of the players have done a fantastic job of listening to us on this,” said Craig Clark, head athletics trainer at Furman University and president-elect of the state athletics trainers association. “It’s going to help take care of the athletes in South Carolina.”
Concussions have drawn more scrutiny in recent years as researchers have detailed an increase in the diagnosis of traumatic brain injuries among all athletes — from the National Football League to high school players. While football gets the most attention, concussions are common among basketball, hockey and soccer players.
The bill requires the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Services to work with the state Department of Education to create specific concussion guidelines and procedures for schools to follow. Those will be posted on the DHEC website, and all coaches, athletes and parents must be given a handout each year detailing the concussion guidelines.
The procedures spelled out in the bill include on-field examinations of anyone suspected of suffering a concussion and automatic removal from play of anyone showing concussion symptoms. Most schools have followed those procedures for several years, as the publicity about concussions has spread, Clark said.
But not all schools have athletics trainers or physicians at games, and even the largest schools don’t have enough medical personnel to staff every game. The educational component of the bill is designed to help coaches and other team officials make initial decisions on concussions.
It has not been standard procedure for schools to require a physician to examine a concussed player before he or she could return to play. Schools with athletics trainers typically would have the trainers do symptom checks on the athletes, usually after a week away from activity, but physicians seldom were brought into the discussion.
“Most schools aren’t as lucky (as the large, urban schools) with experienced athletic trainers,” Clark said. “Some small rural areas don’t have them. And with the number of athletes at large schools, some can fall through the cracks even if they have athletic trainers.”
Dr. Craig Burnworth, medical director of the Moore Sports Medicine Concussion Center in Columbia, has spoken with athletics directors, trainers and school nurses about how they should treat suspected concussions. Because the state had no official policy, there was too much variability in how the injuries were treated, he said.
Some schools might have had policies that said students had to sit out seven or 10 days, but they did not specify that athletes had to be examined before returning to play, or who should examine them before they return.
The requirement to be seen by a physician might be seen as a hurdle by some coaches, athletes or parents, but Burnworth considers it a major step forward that was too long in coming.
“We’re just catching up with other states,” he said. “Thirty-seven other states already have these kinds of guidelines.”