WESTIELD, NJ — Sanjay Sujanthakumar was playing in a varsity state tournament soccer game for Westfield High School in 2012, his junior year. He had just returned from a concussion sustained a few weeks earlier in another game. During that tournament game, after some routine headers and a series of rough plays, he just didn’t feel like himself. Then after the game he started to develop a steady headache.

Now almost five years later, Sujanthakumar still has Post-Concussion Syndrome, but is finally able to return to the academic promise that he showed in his youth. After having spent an extra year in high school and two years in Union County College, Sujanthakumar in the fall will be heading to the University of Southern California. It’s been a long road of rehabilitation and recovery. 

“I could not have imagined how life-changing a concussion can be,” Sujanthakumar said. “In terms of physical and cognitive activity, I have been limited in what I can do.”

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As concussions continue to garner attention from the media as well as the medical community (a recent edition of the Journal of Athletic Training is devoted entirely to sports-related concussions), Westfield High School’s athletic department follows strict guidelines mandated by the state in handling concussions. Meanwhile, a wave of new information continues to change to the way head injuries are dealt with everywhere.

“We see the athlete get hit on the head and we go talk to the coach,” said Chris Flores, Westfield’s head athletic trainer. “We have to check this kid, we tell the coach. He or she may try to shake it off and stay in the game. We’ll tell the coach they have to come off. Our coaches are well versed in concussions. They know the athletes have to come off the field.”

Just a decade ago, players were returning to the field on the same day if they claimed to be symptom-free. Now that is no longer the case. There are laws in every state and Washington, DC, that mandate concussion management at the scholastic level.

In Westfield, the procedure begins by one of the certified trainers as soon as the player is off of the field or court. The initial assessment begins with checking the student’s level of coherence, how they are generally feeling and if their memories are working properly, according to Flores. Then, using a thorough check list, the extent of head trauma is assessed.

If further evaluation is needed, students are referred to the Center for Concussion Care and Rehabilitation at Overlook Medical Center or they can see their own doctors. The school and the doctors work together during the recovery phase. Players are not allowed to rejoin the team until after seven days of remaining symptom-free. Once the athlete is able to get back with the team, they now enter a five-day Exertion Return to Play Protocol, and once again they have to meet certain standards to get back into a game.

Why are concussions taken so seriously?

“Concussion is an injury to the brain,” said Dr. Joseph Rempson, medical director at the Center for Concussion Care and Physical Rehabilitation at Overlook Medical Center. “That’s the most important thing to remember. A lot of times family members, community members hear the word ‘concussion’ and they think it can be a relatively benign thing. It’s only a concussion. People must remember that it’s an injury to the brain. No different than a stroke or Parkinson’s Disease.”

In most cases the student athlete is able to recover and return to play. But there is a small segment, according to Dr. Rempson, that can have significant memory and concentration issues. This can affect them socially, academically and in sports, as it did with Sujanthakumar. This is why getting proper treatment in a timely manner is vital for the best chances for a full recovery from a concussion.

For Dr. Rempson and the staff at Overlook, the goal is to make sure that the student athlete’s major or most common symptoms of headache or head pressure are no longer present.

“In terms of cognitive or physical rest, you are resting for those two particular issues,” said Dr. Rempson.

A frequent contributor to TAPinto Westfield, Mike Cohen is the founder/director of Throwback Sports (a sports program for children of all abilities) and the sports editor of Education Update. He can be reached at throwbacksports@verizon.net.