Avid skier and hockey player Carson Loeppky likes to push himself — and he has the concussions to prove it.
It was that history of brain injuries that brought the 15-year-old out to Red Deer College Library on Saturday to participate in a free assessment to establish a brain function baseline.
Overseen by college psychology instructor Elena Antoniadis, the computer-based testing was offered through the Alberta Sport Development Centre.
“I ski and play hockey a lot and I wanted to make sure I don’t get a serious brain injury because we know people who have and never really came back from it,” said Loeppky.
“I don’t think I injured my brain terribly, but it definitely did scare me a little bit. So I wanted to make sure I have some knowledge beforehand.”
His first concussion happened as a playground accident when he was eight years old.
Another occurred on the ski slopes at 12, followed by a third, again a skiing incident.
Loeppky and other active youth and young adults are exactly the candidates Antoniadis and the Sport Centre had in mind.
There has been plenty of attention in recent years to concussions in pro sports — NHL superstar Sidney Crosby’s injury trials just one of many high-profile cases.
“I didn’t see a comparable effort in community sport,” said Antoniadis. “I thought that knowing what we do about the maturing brain, the adolescent brain, that it is more vulnerable to damage, then we should put as much effort into community sports as well.”
Stakes can be high. Not identifying and treating an initial concussion can put athletes lives at risk.
“Second-impact syndrome can be fatal,” she said.
“There have been instances where a child has sustained one blow to the head and was allowed to resume play. And when he sustained the second one he died on the field.”
The 45-minute or so assessment done at a computer screen is called ImPACT for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing.
It is the same tool that professional football, hockey and rugby teams give their players at the start of each season. Red Deer College requires its athletes to undertake the same test.
The sophisticated testing measures reaction time, non-verbal decision making, graphic recognition, verbal memory, spatial memory and other parameters.
Tests are designed to work both frontal and real lobes of the brain. For instance, word memory exercises target short-term memory in the front part of the brain. Tests involving shapes call on a different portion of the brain.
Some exercises assess impulse control, or the brain’s tendency towards almost-automatic choices. As an example, the word red might show up in green letters requiring the participant to do what is known as “inhibit a learned response.”
Should someone who has undergone the testing receive a head injury, they can return for further testing to measure whether any damage has been done and what steps need to be taken.
“(Concussions are) a very invisible injury. It’s not something where you can see someone limping.
“It’s just a functional injury that you can only measure by capturing their cognitive ability on a test like this. And some of those signs are very subtle.”
The good news is that most can recover from concussion-related injuries given the proper treatment and enough rest.
Testing takes the guess work away on how to respond to an injury for the athlete, parents, coaches and doctors, she added.
Jason Chilibeck, is president of the 700-strong Red Deer Pond Hockey league, and encouraged his son Ayrton, 12, to undergo the testing.
His son came away with more awareness about brain functioning and how to recognize when something is amiss should he suffer a head injury.
Chilibeck said mandatory testing in the no-hit league is unlikely but he wants to get the word out to parents that the testing is available.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what this is all about,” he said.
The dangers of concussions, how to identify them and respond are conversations the league, parents, coaches and players should be having, he said.
Antoniadis said testing is available to those 12 and up. It’s not only for younger people. Middle-aged weekend warriors can also register for an assessment.
About 10 people were signed up for Saturday’s assessment. A second session takes place from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 20 at the college library. Those interested in getting the test another time can also set up an appointment.
For information call Antoniadis at the college at 403-314-2448.