WEST ORANGE, NJ — On a Saturday earlier this month, RWJBarnabas Health provided free cardiac and concussion baseline screenings to young athletes at the Codey Arena in West Orange.

Kids ranging in age from 5 to 18 could be registered to undergo either a cardiac screening or a concussion screening. The Matthew J. Morahan (MJM) III Health Assessment Center for Athletes at RWJBarnabas Health recently crossed the 30,000-kid threshold for screenings since it launched in 2010.

MJM is a statewide program offering young athletes access to free or low-cost cardiac screenings and baseline concussion testing in various satellite centers throughout New Jersey.

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"In eight short years come a long way," said Diana Toto, M.S., director of Sports Medicine and Business Development at Saint Barnabas Medical Center. "We're proud of the fact that we work hard to find that one child who we can potentially save through these screenings. We've found special cases that require further follow-up. Cardiac is more diagnostic.

"An abnormal heart rhythm, an HCM (hyper cardio myopy), these are like finding a needle in a haystack, but we find a lot of other things that could lead to a fatal arryhtmia that might not come up during a doctor's visit."

Nearly 90 percent of sudden cardiac deaths (SCD) in young athletes occur during or after athletic activities and hidden heart conditions are often the cause, according to RWJBarnabas Health. Children and teens also are more susceptible to concussions from sports, falls and accidents than adults because their brains are still developing. Proper preliminary cardiac and baseline concussion screenings can identify issues in the future.

When preliminary testing to identify serious cardiac problems is provided to young athletes, sudden cardiac arrest and tragic deaths may be avoided.

Until recently, concussion screenings were only available for young athletes ages 10 and above. ImPACT Pediatric is an iPad-based computerized test that is individually and easily administered.

Having a concussion baseline study (ImPACT) for a young athlete can help identify issues in the future. If an athlete is believed to have suffered a head injury, this screening test may be used to evaluate the severity of the head injury and determine when it is safe to return to play.

"Our pediatric cardiologist Dr. Donald Putman has been doing this a very long time," said Toto. "It has to be a significant change to actually pull an athlete out of a sport. We just want to rule out that there is something more serious going on. This program has never terminated anyone's sports career. We had follow-up care of injured athletes, but started with pre-screenings and raising awareness, doing 700 screenings a year. Now we're doing 5,000 or 6,000.

"We have adapted our protocols to be really elite. It's very important that the athlete and parent that the athlete returns to the field safely. We assess everything as thoroughly as possible so that they don't get reinjured. Our goal is to make sure they are 100 percent ready to return with confidence."

That last point is one that Toto emphasized, and one that may often be overlooked. Returning from an injury to participate in activities again requires not just a physical recovery, but a mental preparedness that entails going back out onto the field or the court without the attendant fear of a recurring injury or incident.

"With any injury, it starts to affect your mental game, especially if there is a re-injury," Toto said. "With the concussion program, we see 700 concussions a year. We are proud of our active recovery program.

"We are working with athletes as young as 5 years old. Across New Jersey, there is not a lot out there for pediatric concussions. Getting a young athlete on a treadmill 72 hours after injury is really cutting edge. If you allow your brain to be cocooned, you risk de-conditioning. When you work out, blood flow goes to your muscles.

"Cerebral blood flow goes down with a concussion anyway, and by de-training your body, you are lengthening the amount of time it takes your body to recover. We place these athletes in tracks they are either on the fast track or more of a modified or slow track if they have more severe symptoms."

Toto also stressed that intervening in a timely manner can also help the young athlete recover more quickly and get back to the activity he or she loves.

"Early intervention leads to earlier outcomes and better outcomes," Toto said. "By a week later, sometimes kids might jump from the slow track to the fast track because of the exercises they are doing. But they have to be compliant with what we are recommending, or else the recovery time might be delayed."

Families who are interested in having their kids screened can visit rwjbh.org/morahan or call (973) 322-7913 to find out about upcoming screenings and additional information.