Simple test may spot concussion in athletes

NEW YORK Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:17pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A simple, inexpensive test of reaction time may help determine on the sidelines whether an athlete has suffered a concussion, according to research released today that will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology's 62nd annual meeting in Toronto.

Research has shown that reaction time is slower after a concussion - even as long as several days after other symptoms have resolved. However, tests currently used to measure reaction time rely on computers and special software. That rules out their use in real-time situations such as games.

"We view their reliance on computers a limiting factor for use in many clinical settings," Dr. James T. Eckner of the University of Michigan Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Ann Arbor told Reuters Health by email.

This led Eckner and his colleagues to develop a simple test of reaction time: a rigid cylinder attached to a weighted disk. The examiner releases the device and the athlete must react and catch it as quickly as possible.

During preseason physicals, Eckner and colleagues gave the test to more than 200 Division I college football, wrestling and women's soccer players. Players who suffered a doctor-diagnosed concussion during the season took the test again within 3 days of the concussion.

Eight athletes suffered a concussion during the season and seven of them had prolonged reaction time after the injury compared to the preseason time. Catching the cylinder took about 15 percent longer.

"Because of its simplicity and low cost, this test may work well with youth athletes, where there is limited access to computerized testing of reaction time," Eckner noted in a statement from the American Academy of Neurology.

"While we don't think that this simple test will replace computerized cognitive testing in the evaluation of concussion," Eckner told Reuters Health, "we do think that it has the potential to add value in the initial sideline or training room evaluation of concussion where computerized testing is impractical, as well as in younger athletes who may not have access to the more expensive computerized tests."

Eckner said the next step would be a larger controlled trial.

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