Making an impact: New technology helping diagnose concussions

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Earlier this summer, Jackson High School football players were herded into the school's computer lab 30 at a time to try their hands at tricky mind games.

When the athletes were done, they returned to the practice field, while a database saved their scores, and maybe their lives, too.

A program designed to help physicians and athletic trainers diagnose and treat concussions was recently introduced to the Cape Girardeau area. It already has been put to use by local high schools and hospitals.

Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, commonly known as ImPACT, was created by the University of Pittsburgh over a decade ago and is just now trickling into our community.

ImPACT is an exam given to student athletes, taking no more than 30 minutes, and can be completed using the school's computers. The test, which is somewhat similar to a video game, provides information to help manage sports related concussions. Using a series of six different tests involving numbers, colors and shapes, ImPACT tests elements like memory, reaction time, speed and concentration.

"They've been impressed with how challenging it is," said Mike Green, a physical therapist at Southeast Missouri Hospital's HealthPoint Plaza. "It's kind of fun for them at the same time."

As part of the test, students are also required to provide past concussion history and other related conditions such as epilepsy or migraines.

The value of the test is seen when an athlete is suspected to have suffered a concussion. Then, he or she is required to take another test, similar to the first. Results are compared and the variations allow physicians to understand the severity of the concussion and determine when the athlete can return to play without harm.

Before this technology, the trainers made the call, said Kevin Bohnert, athletic director at Jackson.

Trainers had only an athlete's symptoms and their best judgment to rely on, he said.

With the new testing, officials can be sure that students are fully healed and reduce the risk of further injury.

"Basically, there's no guesswork involved," said Bohnert, who was impressed with how easy and accurate the technology was.

The advantages of ImPACT have helped it gain popularity nationwide. It is currently used by professional athletes including the NFL, NBA and NASCAR.

The benefits of the concussion technology go far beyond athletes; they extend to everyday patients, explained Dr. Stephen Jordan, neuro-psychologist at Saint Francis Medical Center. Even without taking a preconcussion test, patients will benefit from taking the exam post-trauma. Physicians can compare these results with other research and help patients identify whatever treatments they might need, he said.

"We are emphasizing aggressive post-concussion management," said Jordan.

As of now, Jackson plans to offer the test to the football, soccer and wrestling teams. Because these sports are considered contact sports, there is a greater likelihood of concussions.

According to Green, Southeast has been involved in testing 250 students at schools including Jackson, Perryville, Scott City and St. Vincent.

Saint Francis has also tested students from Notre Dame, Central and Saxony Lutheran high schools, said athletic trainer Mark Donelson.

Melissa Sirrine is a student at Brigham Young University who lives in Jackson.

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