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COLUMBUS — Everyone wants to see inside and gauge the mind of a student-athlete. And thanks to the work of the Nebraska Sports Concussion Network, high schools are moving closer and closer to achieving the knowledge and technology necessary to do so, all while hopefully making athletics safer.

Thursday, the NSCN stopped by Columbus Community Hospital (CCH), its first of three training sessions to educate and implement the Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test (ImPACT) that has become one of the staples of concussion testing across the nation at all levels of sports.

Through a partnership with CCH, NSCN can now reach out to smaller schools, and the immediate area will surely benefit from the newfound association.

Columbus High, Lakeview High School, Scotus Central Catholic and Twin River are already involved. Area schools joining them this year, under the regional coverage provided by CCH, are Schuyler, David City, Howells, Clarkson, St. Edward and Central Community College. Several other area schools also are signed up through different regional hospitals.

None of this would be possible without the sponsorship of CCH, which will surely benefit from ImPACT. And all involved can thank the CCH athletic training staff of Rob Marshall, Mike Sloup and Denise Reicks.

“Those schools have never had the opportunity to participate in this before,” Sloup said. “With this partnership, it allows us to offer this to those schools.”

The NSCN’s goals are simple: To provide a means for schools to improve their athletic healthcare program by implementing a cost effective sports-related concussion testing program; educate schools, coaches, athletes and parents to recognize the signs, symptoms and inherent risks of sports-related concussions; and assist the medical community to utilize neurocognitive testing in their medical practice and learning contemporary methods for managing sports-related concussions and the progression for concussed athletes return to participation in a more consistent, objective and safe manner.

In other words, the NSCN wants schools to have the best options to educate, recognize and treat concussions, keeping players healthy and safe no matter what the sport.

In only its second year of existence, the NSCN has grown rapidly. This year, nine regional affiliates have been added, with CCH being one. There are over 75 schools participating in the program, and that means a large amount of student-athletes who are all being taught and given the same tests. Under the NSCN umbrella, everyone will be on the same playing field when it comes to concussions.

“This will allow us to be a lot more consistent,” NSCN Testing Program Coordinator David Schultz said. “Testing in Falls City will be the same as here in Columbus.”

Over 6,500 student-athletes have already been given ImPACT, creating a huge database of information on the human brain. But perhaps the biggest improvement is the regional coverage, which allows smaller schools to get the same level of testing as the biggest schools in the state.

Normally, the smallest package for testing is roughly $500, something the likes of Columbus High are suited perfectly for due to its size. But the Clarkson’s and St. Edward’s of the state can’t justify the cost. With the regional sponsor, the smaller-sized schools can get ImPACT for around $150 for 50 kids. All in all, both sides come out winners.

ImPACT is a battery of tests that takes around 20 minutes to complete, measuring a player’s symptoms, verbal and visual memory, reaction time and aids in creating a return to play (RTP) timeline. NSCN has helped bring ImPACT to the masses, something many schools didn’t utilize until recently. Last year, along with the 6,500 student-athletes on file, 265 coaches also took the test, helping with educating all levels involved.

Still, there is much work to be done.

“Symptoms are not always definite and the decision to allow an individual to return to activity is not always clear, and that is where ImPACT’s data will help us. Most athletes who experience an initial concussion can recover completely as long as they are not returned to exertion or contact play too soon,” NSCN Medical Director and Neurosurgeon Daniel Tomes said.

And that, when dealing with a physical sport like football, can be the hardest thing. From parents to coaches and even athletic trainers, there are times when the rush to return a player to action overcomes common sense.

Hopefully, LB 260, a upcoming law Tomes, Marshall and many others helped get through state legislation will help. The bill goes into effect in 2012, and will set stricter guidelines when dealing with concussions.

“Research clearly shows that the effects of repeated concussions are cumulative,” Tomes said. “A concussed athlete whose injury is not managed properly and who returns to play too soon before the brain has had time to heal is at greater risk for further, more serious injury, and that is a road you never want to travel.”

The road the NSCN is currently headed down is a bright one, and with schools catching on, should only gain momentum with each year. Concussions are a part of sports, and probably always will be. But thanks to the NSCN’s partnership with CCH and other hospitals across the state, city and area schools will be better educated and trained about dealing with concussions.

And that will help keep everyone’s mind at ease.

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