An estimated 1-1.8 million sport-related concussions (SRC) occur per year in patients younger than 18 years of age. Concussion is defined as “a traumatically induced transient disturbance of brain function.” More than 50% of concussions among high school youth are not related to organized sports and between 2% and 15% of athletes in organized sports will sustain a concussion during a season of play.
which will be described in this article. The guidelines include recommendations for imaging, treatment, and decision making regarding when as well as whether to return to play. Here is a brief summary of those recommendations.
Preseason: Preseason evaluation includes a preparticipation physical evaluation and discussion of concussion history as well as risk factors associated with prolonged concussion recovery. Neurocognitive tests are available for baseline evaluation. While these may assist with diagnosis and return-to-play decisions, there can be considerable variation in an individual’s baseline score as well as the possibility of changes in that baseline over time. Because of this potential for variability, these tests are not required or accepted as the standard of care.
Sideline assessment: Familiarity with the athlete is the best way to detect subtle changes in personality or performance. Looking at symptoms is still the most sensitive way to diagnose a concussion. Loss of consciousness, seizure, tonic posturing, lack of motor coordination, confusion, amnesia, difficulty with balance, or any cognitive difficulty should prompt removal from play for possible concussion. Once a potential injury is identified, how the athlete responds to the elements of orientation, memory, concentration, speech pattern, and balance should be evaluated. If an athlete has a probable or definite concussion, the athlete needs to be removed from play and cannot return to same-day play, and a more detailed evaluation needs to be done.
Office assessment: It is not unusual for symptoms and testing to normalize by the time an office visit occurs. If this is the case, the visit should focus on recommendations for safe return to school and sport. A standard office evaluation should include taking a history with details of the mechanism of injury and preexisting conditions – such as depression and prior concussion – that can affect concussion recovery. The history should focus on detecting symptoms that typically cause impairment from concussion: headache, ocular-vestibular issues leading to problems with balance, and cognitive issues with difficulty concentrating and remembering, as well as fatigue and mood issues such as anxiety, irritability, and depression. The physical exam should include assessment of ocular and vestibular function, gait, and balance in addition to a neurological exam.
Imaging: Head CT or MRI are rarely indicated. Intracranial bleeds are rare in the context of SRC but can occur. If there is concern for a bleed, then CT scan is the imaging test of choice. MRI may have value for evaluation for atypical or prolonged recovery.
Recovery time: The large majority (80%-90%) of concussed older adolescents and adults return to preinjury levels of function within 2 weeks; in younger athletes, clinical recovery may take up to 4 weeks. The best predictor of recovery from SRC is the number and severity of symptoms.
Treatment: For decades, cognitive and physical rest has been the standard of treatment. However, this is no longer the “gold standard” as it has been shown that strict rest (“cocoon therapy”) after SRC slows recovery and leads to an increased chance of prolonged symptoms. Current consensus guidelines support 24-48 hours of symptom-limited rest, both cognitive and physical, followed by a gradual increase in activity, staying below symptom-exacerbation thresholds. Activity, along with good sleep hygiene, appears to be helpful in facilitating recovery from SRC. In athletes with persistent post concussive symptoms that continue beyond the expected recovery time frame, activities of daily living, school, and exercise that do not significantly exacerbate symptoms are recommended.
Return to learning/play: A concussion can cause temporary deficits in attention, cognitive processing, short-term memory, and executive functioning. School personnel should be informed of the injury and assist in employing an individualized return to learn plan, including academic accommodations. Ultimately, return to sports activities should follow a successful return to the classroom. Return to play involves a stepwise increase in physical demands/activity without symptoms before a student is allowed to participate in full contact play.
Concussion-related risks: Continuing to participate in sports before resolution of concussion can worsen and prolong symptoms of SRC. Returning too early after concussion, before full recovery, increases the risk of recurrent SRC. During the initial post-injury period, returning to sports too early increases the risk for a rare but devastating possibility of second impact syndrome that can be a life-threatening repeat head injury. Studies of long-term mental health diagnoses are conflicting and inconsistent. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been described in athletes with a long history of concussions and repetitive sub-symptom head impacts. The degree of exposure needed appears to be variable and dependent on the individual.
Disqualification from play: Because each athlete is individually assessed after SRC, there are no evidence-based studies indicating how many concussions are “safe” for an athlete to have in a lifetime. The decision to stop playing sports is both serious and difficult for most athletes and requires shared decision making between clinician, the athlete, and the athlete’s parents. Factors to consider when determining if disqualification from play is warranted include:
- The total number of concussions experienced by a patient.
- Whether a patient has sustained subsequent concussions with progressively less forceful blows to the head.
- If a patient has sustained multiple concussions,whether the time to complete a full recovery after each concussion event increased.
The bottom line: “Cocoon therapy” is no longer recommended. Consensus guidelines endorse 24-48 hours of symptom-limited cognitive and physical rest followed by a gradual increase in activity, including noncontact physical activity that does not provoke symptoms.
Dr. Belogorodsky is a second-year resident and Dr. Fidler is an associate director in the Family Medicine Residency Program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health.
Harmon KG et al. American Medical Society for Sports Medicine position statement on concussion in sport..