Attention Coaches: A Cheap and Easy Concussion Test

200203020-003Let’s say you’re a coach standing on the sidelines of a high school football practice. As your team runs through a live-hitting drill, you see one of your sophomore stars get knocked silly. You sprint to his aid, and as he pushes himself off the ground slowly, he says he’s fine. But how can you tell for sure that this player hasn’t suffered a concussion?

It’s tricky. While there have been some promising developments in concussion assessment in recent years, most methods are either too expensive for budget-strapped programs (high-tech helmets that measure impact) or require computer-driven software, which makes them difficult to employ on the sidelines. But one study published earlier this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine offers new hope to athletic trainers and medical professionals working with youth sports teams. As Gretchen Reynolds wrote recently on the New York Times Well blog, the brilliance of this research really lies in its utter simplicity:

 “Eminently practical, it offers a means by which any team, no matter how small or cash-strapped, can assess the likelihood of one of its players having sustained an on-field concussion. It also celebrates a nifty, D.I.Y., MacGyver-ish sensibility rarely seen in our technology-obsessed times.”

What is it, exactly? When someone suffers a concussion, his or her reaction time (RT) is known to slow. Study co-authors Steven P. Broglio and James Eckner, of the University of Michigan, found that a simple device—created with a hockey puck attached to a long wooden dowel calibrated like a measuring stick—could adequately measure RT. We called Broglio to ask him about the test's practical implications, and here’s what he told us:

“I would never want to say you can use just this and nothing else. But the fact of the matter is, not all schools have huge, unlimited budgets, so adding this to the clinical exam can be an important screening tool for athletic trainers. It’s very portable, and if you need to make a sideline decision, it can be done right there, without going inside and leaving the team unattended.”

How a Trainer Uses The DIY Concussion Test

1. Make the device. Using a strong adhesive, secure a hockey puck to the end of a wooden dowel. (The researchers drilled into the hockey puck first, using a bit of glue to make sure the dowel stuck.) With a marker or pen, make a mark for each centimeter along the length of the dowel.

2. Get baseline measurements. To tell whether RT has slowed, you need to have a baseline measurement on the books. So ideally, at the beginning of the season, you’d have each player complete the test. Seat them next to a table with one arm resting on the surface, hand extending beyond table’s edge. Align the puck with the bottom of the athlete’s hand and let go. The athlete catches the falling stick—and you take down where his hand lands.

3. Repeat the test after a collision. In the case of extreme impact or head injury, repeat the test. If RT has slowed—no matter how slightly—you can use it as a sign that the player should be sidelined and seen by a doctor.

For more on high school sports injuries, check out our story on warrior culture in the September issue of Choices (Playing Through the Pain), or our blog post with important safety tips for teen athletes.