Scientists search for better ways to diagnose, treat concussions

Index cards, blood tests may help identify injured athletes

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As public awareness and concern about the risk of concussions has grown, there has been a major push to find better ways to diagnose and treat concussions.

A lot of those efforts are being focused on young athletes in particular.

According to the CDC, an estimated 250,000 children and teenagers were treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports- or recreation-related brain injuries in 2009.

Ryan Shannon suffered two concussions in less than two months while playing high school lacrosse.

"I couldn't focus on anything. School was really hard," said Shannon.

As part of her recovery, doctors used a device called a saccadometer.

The device is worn on the patient's head and measures Shannon's rapid eye movement as she follows a series of projected laser dots on the wall. It relays the results to a computer, allowing doctors to track her progress.

"When something shows up in our visual fields, we should be able to spot it pretty quickly. With concussions, that just doesn't happen," said Dr. Kenneth Oliver from The Neuro Clinic.

The device hasn't been FDA-approved to officially diagnose a concussion, but it's one more tool doctors can use to guide treatment and measure recovery.

Some tests are far less high tech, but still effective. The King-Devick Test is a concussion screening test that can be administered right on the sideline. It has athletes rapidly read single-digit numbers on index cards and takes just a minute or two to perform. Athletes take the test at the start of the season and are then retested if a head injury is suspected. Studies find nearly 80 percent of injured athletes take longer to complete the test.

"This is trying to pinpoint those kids that may not 'fess up to their symptoms and may actually look okay, but this may be the deciding factor on whether they actually are or are not concussed," said Dr. Rick Figler of the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center.

Researchers are also working on better ways to determine when it's safe for an athlete to return to play after a concussion. A blood test may help.

A Swedish study found professional hockey players who suffered a concussion had an increased level of the protein T-tau in their blood. The higher the level, the longer it took for their symptoms to resolve.

"I think this is a starting point to develop a panel of blood tests that will allow us to diagnose and prognose, meaning predict the future in a way, of what a concussed player should do next," said Dr. Damir Janigro of the Lerner Research Institute.

All of these efforts and more are designed to help athletes like Shannon safely recover from concussions and get back on the field. She has now been cleared to return to lacrosse. Her mom Karen Hyatt is grateful for the technology that helped doctors help her.

"It gave them the information that helped them figure out what she needed to do, how her brain was functioning, how it wasn't functioning," said Hyatt.