After a season in which they were without star center and team captain Sidney Crosby for 48 games, including the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins are all too familiar with the dangers of concussions.
The team is trying to educate the youth hockey community in Western Pennsylvania about those same dangers.
Representatives from the Penguins Foundation and UPMC Sports Medicine briefed an audience of young hockey players and parents on facts, symptoms and treatment options for concussions in a seminar Tuesday night at CCAC's Boyce Campus in Monroeville.
The seminar was part of "Heads Up Pittsburgh," a partnership between the foundation and UPMC that offers free baseline concussion testing and educational programs to players in both the Pittsburgh Interscholastic Hockey League and Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League.
"Parents have to understand the consequences of what a concussion is and what can happen," said Dave Soltesz, president of the Penguins Foundation. "There's so many different things that go into a concussion, and if parents can understand those things and identify them early on, then they can help prevent it from being a long-term problem."
Heads Up Pittsburgh began in October, and the program provides baseline concussion testing for all players ages 11-18. It is recommended that players in that age group be tested at least once every two years.
For its baseline testing, the program uses the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) system, a comparative test developed in Pittsburgh that is used in several professional sports leagues.
Baseline measurements are used by comparison to gauge impairment and recovery when someone has been diagnosed with a concussion. The ImPACT testing evaluates verbal memory, visual memory, processing speed and reaction time. An athlete must pass the test before he can return to action.
Baseline testing is used because a concussion is not a structural brain injury, meaning that it does not show up on CT or MRI scans.
"We don't make a joke of the assessment -- it's very serious and in-depth," said Dr. Anthony Kontos, an assistant research director at UPMC Sports Medicine. "It's not like we hold up fingers or ask an athlete to remember a number or word."
Concussion symptoms are individualized and vary on a case-by-case basis. Headache is the most common symptom, but others include nausea, dizziness, concentration or memory problems, fuzzy vision and change in sleep pattern. The effects and severity of concussions vary by characteristics such as age and gender, and recovery times vary on an individual basis.
Athletes must pass the baseline test before resuming normal activities because if an athlete has yet to fully recover from a concussion, the symptoms can get worse.
However, forcing an athlete to sit out for an extended period is a process that, for doctors, is equally problematic as it is necessary.
"Telling athletes they can't play is a tough sell because they always want to return as soon as possible," Kontos said. "A concussion is an invisible injury, and it frustrates so many athletes that it afflicts."
The increased research and public awareness being devoted to diagnosing and treating concussions were factors in bringing out many of the youth hockey parents who attended. One parent, Mark Nolker of Brackenridge, has a 13-year-old son who is about to start playing in the bantam level of youth hockey.
"I've heard parents say things like 'What're the odds of my kid getting a concussion?'" Nolker said. "That's our kid's brain for crying out loud. I just can't see parents ignoring this when their kids are at risk on the ice."
Baseline testing is offered at UPMC Sports Medicine's South Side location and at CCAC locations beginning June 5.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org .