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Clinical Crossroads
July 6, 2011

Diagnosis and Management of Sports-Related Concussion: A 15-Year-Old Athlete With a Concussion

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Dr Zafonte is the Earle P. and Ida S. Charlton Professor and Chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School, Vice President of Medical Affairs, Research and Education, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Network, and Chief, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

JAMA. 2011;306(1):79-86. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.819

Concussion in youth athletes is a growing problem worldwide. During the past decade, significant progress has been made in standardization of the assessment of young athletes, and a growing appreciation of metabolic vulnerability, activity, and cognitive challenges has led to guidelines and suggestions for rest from the field as well as cognitive rest from school. Outcome data have begun to establish groups linked to symptom class, genetics, and sex who are at risk of worse outcomes from concussions. Decisions regarding return to activity are now based on at-rest symptoms, graded increases in activity, and neuropsychological testing. Using the case of Ms X, a 15-year-old otherwise healthy high school student who fell while skiing, evaluation, prognosis, and management of concussion are discussed.

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1 Comment for this article
The Student-Athlete With Concussion: More Than Just Return to Play
Christina L. Master, MD | The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania,
It is appropriate to conduct a primary assessment of the ABCDEs in the field. Any cervical tenderness or neurologic deficit warrants further evaluation in the emergency department.
The subsequent evaluation of an athlete sustaining a direct blow to the head or indirect blow to the body resulting in transmitted impulsive forces to the head should include a complete neurological examination with particular attention to cognition, balance and visual tracking. The athlete should not return to play that day and should be monitored for any neurological changes as concussion symptoms frequently evolve after injury. A specific assessment tool such as
the SCAT2 1 for balance and cognition and the King-Devick test2 for visual tracking may be useful.
Return-to-play is often the primary concern of student-athletes and their families. Physicians must emphasize that the return-to-play issue is on the long-horizon, while the return-to-school issue is the more pressing short-horizon concern. Cognitive rest sounds simple, but in reality, concrete examples are essential: any interactive cognitive activity such as reading, texting, video games, computer use or school work constitutes a metabolic strain that can slow the symptomatic resolution of concussion. Specific instructions in the form of a concussion care plan must include cognitive brain-rest until symptom-free, followed by the step-wise re- introduction of cognitive activities at home and then school as long as symptoms are not induced. This must include academic accommodations for an incremental return to a full academic workload. Only after a full return to academic activity can the athlete initiate a return to athletic activities as outlined in the Zurich Consensus Guidelines.1
Student-athletes who have concussive symptoms lasting 6-8 weeks benefit from cardiac exertion as part of their rehabilitation regimen. While physical rest is important during the acute recovery from concussive injury, physical activity plays an important role in the rehabilitation of post-concussive syndrome. 3,4 Patients who have chronic headache symptomatology benefit from referral to neurology for headache syndrome management.
Previous concussion is a known risk factor for subsequent concussion; three concussions have been well-documented to be associated with a threefold increased risk of future re-injury in the student-athlete.5 There also appear to be detectable balance and neuropsychological deficits after even one or two concussions.6,7,8 Physicians caring for student- athletes suffering from concussion must take into consideration the length of recovery and return to baseline when counseling about return to sport. Each decision is an individual one, taking into account the opportunity- cost for each student-athlete in terms of time lost from sports and academics balanced with the benefit of sports participation.
For Ms. X, we recommend that she wear a helmet while downhill skiing which is a high-velocity sport. In addition, many are utilizing baseline computerized neuropsychological testing as a part of the assessment of the athlete recovering from concussion. More data are needed to make universal recommendations, but as with other emerging medical advances, there are many early adopters. We would recommend testing Ms. X during recovery in an attempt to determine her baseline for future use.9
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Conflict of Interest: None declared