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Heads first: Aspen ski club to conduct concussion study

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club is tackling concussion research head-on.

The organization is partnering with Aspen Orthopaedic Associates this winter to conduct a study on the effects of concussions on young skiers and snowboarders. The data, which will be generated by cognitive and postural testing plus a state-of-the-art wireless system placed inside helmets, will establish concrete measurements documenting the number and severity of impacts that occur on the slopes, project leader Zach Stutzman said Tuesday.

“We want to demonstrate the types of impacts … and, to some extent, show how they relate to those seen in other sports, like hockey, rugby and football,” added Stutzman, a certified athletic trainer who works with sports teams at Aspen High School. “Right now, at least half of the concussions that happen go undiagnosed. If nothing else, we can increase awareness and make ski club parents, coaches and kids more aware of the symptoms and signs so they’ll hopefully take better care of themselves now and down the road.”

Major head trauma from skiing is the leading cause of recreational deaths in Colorado, Stutzman said. Among those, adolescents account for 67 percent. Head injuries account for 15 percent of all ski and snowboard injuries.

The upcoming study will use the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS), a wireless apparatus developed by Simbex Technologies consisting of six small accelerometers positioned inside a helmet. The system plugs into a computer, where 3-D images of the head are generated and impacts charted, Stutzman said.

The information gathered can then be compared with both reported symptoms and an athlete’s base-line statistics. Many AVSC members have already gone through a battery of tests, covering everything from balance and memory to problem solving, among others.

The athletes identified as high-risk – particularly those participating in park and various freestyle disciplines – will be chosen to participate, Stutzman said. The Aspen Sports Medicine Foundation has donated grant money, and Giro contributed 10 helmets for the study.

“We’re going to base-line as many people as possible,” Stutzman said. “Then, if we have self-reported concussions or a coach thinks someone could have a concussion, we’ll pull them in as soon as we can and re-test … We’re excited to see what the data shows. Coaches are excited because this gives them an objective measure on returning to play for an athlete.”

AVSC’s safety record has been nearly impeccable – it averages 1.7 incidences per 1,000 participant days, according to risk management statistics compiled over the last seven years. Still, club executive director Mark Cole said Tuesday that the organization has a responsibility to be as informed as possible.

“We owe it to our athletes and our parents to be on top of this,” Cole added. “When it comes down to it, things are going to happen. Someone is going to take a blow to the head through a fall or whatever. That’s the most important time, from that point forward.

“This will make us much more aware, by the symptoms that manifest themselves and real diagnostic information. … This will improve our ability to understand the severity of the incident, even if [some athletes are not wearing] sensors.”

This undertaking is truly unique, said Stutzman, who earned a master’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Illinois in Champagne in 2007. Literature on skier concussions is scarce, and information on young athletes is virtually nonexistent.

“Injury reports at ski resorts track [emergency room] visits, but there’s not much on concussions and not much on adolescents,” Stutzman added. “It seems like it should be so obvious, but there’s a lot more compliance when working with kids instead of high school or college athletes.

“Any time you talk about concussions and bringing in doctors and possibly keeping athletes out of play, sometimes people get pretty skittish and pretty defensive. [AVSC has] been more than accommodating. They already have a concussion protocol in place, and what they’ll benefit from is being able to see if what they’re doing is right.”

Head injuries have garnered increased public attention of late. Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell authored a memo informing teams that he was examining potential rule changes to “reduce head impacts,” according to The Associated Press. He also said the league would continue to invest in research to improve equipment safety and hold a conference on the issue in Washington in June.

Cole said he is grateful AVSC has the opportunity to further the discussion, too.

“I feel like we’re helping advance the knowledge in kind of a narrow niche here that applies directly to us,” he said. “I love being able to participate in that.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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