Simple “Walk and Think” test may identify long-term concussion effects
Researchers across the country are working to develop high-tech devices that could make diagnosing a concussion easier, but a new research may have found a much simpler solution.
A team of researchers from the Sports Medicine Center at Children’s Hospital, Colorado say a “walk and think” test such as having a potentially injured person spell words backwards while walking could effectively detect concussions.
“If we can determine that athletes have recovered this ability after concussion, they may be less likely to get re-injured,” explained study lead author David Howell, an athletic trainer and lead researcher at Children’s Hospital.
As the team explained in a press release, most current concussion tests assess issues like balance, vision, movement, and the ability to think and reason in isolation. However, these tests are not designed to evaluate these factors at the same time and may be unable to detect continuing problems as a person recovers.
In the new study, presented at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association meeting, the team evaluated 41 male and female high school or college athletes who had suffered a concussion and eventually returned to play. The athletes came from basketball, football, hockey, and soccer. They were first tested three weeks after their concussion, and then again when they returned to play.
The athletes were given what is called a “dual-test gait test” which measures a person’s ability to walk and think at the same time. This is typically done by asking a person to walk normally while completing a simple mental task like spelling a word backward, reciting the months of the year in reverse order, or subtracting by 7 starting at 99.
Dual-task gait tests are already widely used to monitor patients with degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Based on the results, the team says that scores on the dual-task gait test correlated with potential brain damage that contributed to later injury. Out of the 41 athletes evaluated, 15 experienced another injury within a year of returning to play. These athletes also showed decreased performance on the dual-task gait tests before returning to competition, while there was no change recorded among the non-injured athletes.
“Athletic trainers are concerned about the safety of athletes and, along with coaches and parents, want to be sure these students are fully healthy before they return to play,” Howell said in a NATA news release.
“Our study is the first to test the theory that subsequent injury risk is related to motor function and/or attentional deficits, which can be measured using dual-task tests,” he added.
“This early research sheds light on the complexities of the recovering brain and suggests that dual-task gait may be a paradigm worth looking at to reduce the risk of injury before clearing an athlete to return to play,” Howell said. “The next step is to translate this research into something athletic trainers can easily use to assess athletes.”