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Determining Whether Athletes With Concussions Can Get Back In Game

Armen Hareyan's picture

Athletes' Health

How soon can I get back in the game? Despite a severe blow to the head, that is a frequent question by athletes who have suffered a concussion. Returning to play too soon can have catastrophic consequences. Suffering a second blow to the head while recovering from an initial concussion can cause permanent brain damage or death.

Dr. Shaun O'Leary, a neurosurgeon at Rush University Medical Center, is now using ImPACT, a new neurocognitive screening tool to help determine a concussion's severity as well as if and when it is safe for the athlete to return to contact sports.

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With ImPACT, physicians and team athletic trainers collect and store pre-season baseline data on the athletes' neurocognitive functional state by having them take a 20-minute computerized test that measures brain processing, speed, memory and visual motor skills.

If an athlete experiences a concussion during the season, he or she is re-tested and the post-concussion data are compared to the baseline data. This information helps physicians and athletic trainers determine the player's post-concussion neurocognitive status and when it is safe for the player to return to active sports.

"Prior to ImPACT, physicians and medical trainers had some rough guidelines, but no good objective devices to figure out when an athlete could return to play," said O'Leary. "It is especially difficult to determine the impact of a mild concussion. Symptoms could be quite subtle and may go unnoticed by the athlete, team medical staff, or coaches."

O'Leary plans to partner with local sporting programs and schools to screen athletes at baseline. However, the system also includes historical norms for each age group so it can be used even if the athlete did not perform a baseline test.

"All concussions are serious, but often players wrongfully think it shows strength and courage to play injured," said O'Leary.