Posted: 8:00 AM, Jan 22, 2016
By: The Cut
Author: Christian Jarrett
-- Parents, players, and coaches are much more aware of the seriousness of sports concussions than they used to be. This is good news — not only are concussions a damaging form of brain injury in their own right, but for a time they leave the brain extra vulnerable to further knocks. That’s why it’s so important that concussions are detected and that concussed players are rested before returning to the action.
Claiming to meet this need, an abundance of computerized sports concussion tests — known formally as “computerized neurocognitive assessment tools” — have popped up, and many of them have shortened mobile-app versions. For example, ImPACT, one of the market leaders, says that it “provides trained clinicians with neurocognitive assessment tools and services that have been medically accepted as state-of-the-art best practices — as part of determining safe return to play decisions.”
The idea behind these computerized tests is that players’ mental performance (things like memory, reaction time, and impulse control) can be tested when they’re healthy and uninjured, and then if or when they suffer a blow to the head, they can retake the test to see if their mental performance is in any way impaired relative to their own baseline. If it is, this would be taken as a sign of concussion. Post-injury, the test can then be retaken periodically, over days and weeks, to look for signs of improvement and help make judgments about when it is safe for the athlete to return to training and playing again.
That’s the theory, but do these tests really work as well as they claim? And is it safe to use these tests as a substitute for in-depth assessment and supervision from a trained physician? According to a study published recently in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, these tests can provide a useful way to help detect cognitive impairments over the first 24 hours after an injury, but they’re not accurate enough to replace professional clinical evaluation — and beyond 24 hours, their accuracy really deteriorates, which means they can’t be relied on as a way to measure concussion recovery.
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