Computer tells athletes when it’s OK to play after concussion

As K-12 athletic directors gear up for another season of high school football, the safety of student athletes becomes a primary concern. Now, thanks to innovative software from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), high school trainers might no longer have to rely on the word of a player to determine whether an athlete has a concussion or is ready to return to the field.

Over the last decade, the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine’s concussion program has developed a computer program that could take the guesswork out of diagnosing a concussion.

Using a battery of memory and reaction tests, the Immediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing system, also called ImPACT, can assess the severity of concussions and can help coaches and trainers determine when it is safe for players to play.

“There have been concussion guidelines for years,” said Dr. Mark Lovell, a neuropsychologist and the director of the concussion program. “They are useful for pinpointing the signs and symptoms, but there’s a certain amount of guesswork with the guidelines, because we have to rely on what the athletes are telling us. And athletes aren’t always truthful because they want to get back on the field.”

About 160 high schools and 100 colleges across the country use the ImPACT system with software that costs about $1,000.

Using the program, trainers or coaches test players on football, soccer, or other teams at the beginning of the season. The players’ memory, reaction time, and processing speed are measured during a few minutes of tests.

The test results are used as a baseline. When athletes are injured, they can be tested again to see how their performance stacks up to pre-injury test results.

A concussion happens when the brain is rocked back and forth inside the skull because of a blow to the head or the upper body. Even a mild concussion will affect an athlete’s reaction speed and memory, Lovell said.

Lovell believes at least 10 percent of athletes involved in contact sports sustain a concussion each season.

Coaches also can use the computer test to determine whether players have recovered from their injuries—a process that can take anywhere from 24 hours to 10 days.

If a concussion is not detected and an athlete is injured again, it can cause permanent brain damage. In rare cases, a second concussion can cause brain swelling and death, Lovell said.

Joseph Perry, the athletic director of Keystone Oaks High School in suburban Pittsburgh, has used ImPACT for about three years. He’s found it’s a useful tool when he needs to convince players—and parents—that an athlete’s concussion is serious.

“Here we have a parent demanding that [the] child play, for fear of a lost scholarship. But with this program we can say to [the parent], ‘Look, we have top-notch people saying that this kid can’t play,'” Perry said.



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