March 10, 2010

Sideline Concussion Test

A simple test of reflexes can help coaches assess whether a player has had a concussion right on the field.

A team at the University of Michigan has developed a simple test to tell whether an athlete has recovered from the effects of a concussion. It's a quick and simple test of the athlete's reflexes.

The team constructed a device that's made of a rigid cylinder attached to a weighted disk. Once released, the cylinder falls slowly and the athlete has to catch it as soon as possible. It's a lot like tossing them a ball and seeing if they have difficulty catching it, only easier to measure.

The device might also be used during a game to tell if a head injury has caused a concussion.

Reaction time is slower after a concussion. This is true even after other symptoms have passed. An athlete's reaction time can be measured by this device at the start of the season. If the athlete suffers a concussion during the season, the device can help pinpoint when he or she has recovered; their reaction time will have returned to its normal, pre−season value. The device might also be used during a game to tell if a head injury has caused a concussion.

A concussion is a mild, traumatic brain injury. Athletes who suffer a concussion and continue playing are placing themselves at risk of more serious injury. Tests currently used to measure the severity of a concussion and recovery from one rely on computerized equipment and software packages. They can't be used during game situations to tell whether an athlete with a head injury has suffered a concussion or estimate the severity of one.

The researchers don't claim that the new test is as thorough as current computerized evaluations are. They do see its usefulness on the sidelines and in the training room, where computerized testing isn't possible, and also for younger athletes and athletes in less organized leagues, where there may not be any access to the more sophisticated tests.

During preseason physicals, the study team gave the test to 209 Division I college football, wrestling and women's soccer players. Anyone who suffered a doctor−diagnosed concussion during the season took the test again, within three days of the concussion. Eight athletes suffered a concussion during the season. Seven of them showed an increased reaction time afterwards; catching the cylinder took about 15% longer.

The next step will be a larger, controlled trial of the device.

The study will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology's 62nd Annual Meeting in Toronto.

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