Often, the warning signs of a head injury that needs attention go unnoticed. Studies on the cumulative effects of concussions in athletes have shown that even mild sports concussions can result in serious long-term problems -- particularly if an athlete is allowed to return to play too early, or has a history of concussions or other head injuries.
This topic has been of growing concern among athletes, coaches and the officials who regulate organized sports from youth sports to the pros. The biggest issue has focused on identifying a concussion on the spot and determining when an athlete should be allowed back in the game.
In 2009, an international panel of neurologists changed their recommendations regarding concussion care for young athletes. The guidelines became fairly strict, with the neurologists saying, in part, that "it's too difficult to make an immediate determination of the seriousness of head injuries which makes it too dangerous for continued play to be considered safe."
Later that year, a long list of former NFL players, executives and lawmakers appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to discuss the long-term effects of head injuries on current and former NFL players and to determine if the NFL is doing enough to protect the players.
Concussion Test: Gauging Reaction Time May Help Aid Concussion DiagnosisIn 2010, in what may be the most helpful response to all the alarms sounding over head injury in sports, researchers at the University of Michigan's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation announced that they have developed a simple and inexpensive reaction time test that may help identify athletes who have a head injury that is serious enough to require time off from sports.
Researchers have long known that reaction time is slower immediately after a concussion, and this delayed reaction time often lasts several days after other concussion symptoms are gone. The problem has generally been that the tests and equipment currently used to measure an athlete's reaction time are elaborate and require computers and special software -- not so handy when you're on the sidelines.
The University of Michigan researchers created a simple device that can be used anywhere to measure reaction time. The small cylinder attached to a weighted disk is released by the tester and an athlete catches it as quickly as possible. It doesn't seem elaborate, but results have been very accurate.
For the study, 209 college athletes took the reaction time test during their pre-season physical exam. Any of those athletes who had a concussion diagnosed by a physician during the season then repeated the reaction test within three days of the head injury. Researchers found that of the eight athletes with diagnosed concussions that season, seven showed reactions times that were about 15% longer than at their initial exam.
This simple device may wind up on the sidelines of most organized sporting events in the near future to help assess whether an athlete needs to sit out a game or even a season.
American Academy of Neurology (AAN) - press release, Simple Test May Help Judge Concussion in Athletes http://www.aan.com/press/index.cfm?fuseaction=release.view&release=802. Last accessed February 17, 2010.