Catching Concussions

Many athletes are taught to be tough and push through the pain. But, a wack to the head may result in an injury you can't see, and in some cases, can't feel. Now, a specialized computer program is helping reveal who may have a concussion and whether the injury is truly healed.

Fifteen-year-old Dan Hince loves sports. Like many of his peers, he plays aggressively and doesn't mind the hard knocks.

"I'm pretty tough. I play at a fast pace," Hince said.

But last January, a collision on the court that didn't appear to be that bad left Hince feeling strange. He had suffered two sports-related concussions in the past; one had knocked him out.

The most recent turned out to be much worse than they thought when he started experiencing confusion and headaches for weeks. He was diagnosed with a mild concussion.

"As it turned out, it was the most significant in terms of the long-lasting effect and the symptoms," said mom Jeanie Hince.

And that left the Hinces like many other families in a quandary. When is it safe to let someone back in the game?

"We never had the ability to say, 'Yes, he's completely healed,' other than saying, 'Do you have a headache?'" said Jeanie Hince.

Enter this computer program called IMPACT. It stands for Immediate Post Concussion Assessment And Cognitive Testing. It's a series of sophisticated tests designed to measure how the brain is functioning following a concussion. With flashing pictures and quick number games, it tests everything from reaction time to concentration. Neurosurgeon Shaun Oleary at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital has been using it for the past year.

"I think there are many concussions that are under diagnosed, so it actually helps to diagnose some of those people," said O'Leary. "Also, it helps me decide when a player can return to a sport again."

O'Leary is also a kids' lacrosse coach. He sees firsthand how fast a concussion can happen and believes programs like IMPACT can help keep young athletes safe.

Neurosurgeon Leonard Cerullo agrees and says growing research shows even a slight jolt to the head can result in injury even if there are no bumps or bruises.

"It's a disruption of electrical activity in the brain getting the message from one neuron to another," said Cerullo. "The reflexes are slower the processing is slower that the patient is more vulnerable to another concussion."

So why is it so important to make sure a player is fully recovered? Research shows an unhealed concussion can lead to persistent symptoms. Even worse, it could leave an athlete susceptible to future brain injury.

Even though Dan Hince looked and seemed fine in January, the IMPACT test revealed his brain was still healing. Another test in March revealed he was back to normal. Pick up games of basketball are back on and so are his plans to play football.

"I certainly have the confidence I need as a parent to know that he is not at risk long term right now," said Jeanie Hince.

In many cases, limiting physical activity and allowing the brain to rest will promote a full recovery.

You may be hearing more about the IMPACT test as hundreds of high schools, colleges and hospitals are now using it. The idea is to have a baseline test before an injury.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Dr. Shaun T. O'Leary

Advocate Lutheran General Hospital

Rush University Medical Center

Dr. Leonard J. Cerullo
Chicago Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroresearch (CINN)
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