Twenty-five Bowdoin athletes and non-athletes have sustained concussions this year, down from 39 in Fall 2010. Despite the decreasing trend, the College has seen an overall increase in reports of the injury in the past years.
As concussions have received heightened scrutiny nationally, the College has in turn increased its efforts to both raise awareness of the injury and educate students of its impact.
"What's really hard for us to tell is whether the number of concussions has changed or our awareness and diagnosis has improved," said Director of Athletics Jeff Ward. "And the big thing is whether the number of students coming forward has changed."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a statistic that in the past decade, emergency room visits for sports-related traumatic brain injuries have increased by 60 percent.
"The recognition is becoming better—concussion awareness and concussion education is becoming that much better," said Dan Davies, the College's head athletic trainer. "However, people are also bigger, faster and stronger. They're hitting with more intensity compared to previous years," he said.
Bowdoin has integrated concussion education into its athletic program in the past few years. At the beginning of each season, teams meet with Ward and trainers to discuss the effects of these injuries.
According to Ward, about half of the pre-season programming concerns concussion awareness.
"Last year and this year we've made it a point of emphasis...we did some programming that talked about concussions and how important it was to avoid them," he said. "As I talk to my colleagues, I would say that we were stronger in the way that we presented those messages to the point where I was almost fearful that we were too strong in how we did it."
Sara Plager '15, a varsity soccer player, suffered from a concussion on October 12 as a result of going up for a header during practice. She initially thought she had sustained a neck injury, but severe headaches and difficulty concentrating indicated something more severe.
Because of her concussion, she had to miss a significant amount of class that resulted in her dropping one of her courses for the semester. "Because of my concussion I had to miss so much class and I couldn't make it up feasibly," she said.
As someone who has never suffered from this type of injury before, players noted how unsettling the situation is.
"It's really surprising because I've never had a concussion before and I've been playing sports my whole life," she said. "I've never experienced anything like this. It's really scary when you try to do work—maybe read for 10 minutes—and you have a blazing headache and you would not have gotten anything out of the material."
Ben Kekeisen '14 played on the football team his first semester last year before he was seriously concussed halfway through the season. He had to leave campus in the middle of the semester to rest at home and could not complete his courses. However, he notes the effectiveness and awareness of the staff when it comes to concussions.
"Our training staff for football was really good...even if it's just someone coming in saying that they got a headache after practice, they are very diligent with the testing," he said.
The College's protocol in dealing with concussions includes conducting a baseline impact test—the Balance Error Scoring System test—and the King-Devick saccadic eye movement test when a concussion is suspected. Additionally, the team physician, Dr. William Heinz, is contacted during every incidence of concussion and without his permission, student-athletes cannot return to play. When cleared, athletes must then complete a five-step return to play process that works the player back up to full-contact activity.
Alex Brown '13 was a goalie for the lacrosse team before she sustained her third concussion last spring. She could not attend class for three weeks, finished the semester with two incompletes, and was sidelined for the remainder of the season.
"As much as my coaches, my teammates, and the school were awesome and supportive—no one pressured me at all to go back—there is always that desire as an athlete to want to help your team and be there for them," she said.
Unfortunately, because of the severity of her last injury and her history with concussions, Brown is no longer able to play lacrosse.
"It's hard not playing lacrosse anymore, but I also know in a sense that it's not worth going back to where I was...I was having a hard time functioning for a while," she added.
Ward maintains the sophistication of Bowdoin's treatment of concussions.
"We certainly fall into the category of being a leader in this field, not a follower," he said. "I really do think that our sports medicine operation here—between the trainers and our relationship with Orthopedic Associates—is outstanding. I think it's the best in Division III, maybe even in the country."