Cognitive testing tool used to assess traumatic brain injuries in Summit County
Program encourages student athletes and recreationists to take computerized tests that can guide treatment strategies later on
Written by Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by St. Anthony Summit Medical Center
There’s a powerful tool helping health care providers evaluate and treat traumatic brain injuries in Summit County, but many potential patients who could benefit — such as skiers, snowboarders, cyclists and student athletes, among others — aren’t using it.
Anyone between the ages of 5 and 59 can take a 30-minute computerized test, called the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test, or ImPACT. This $15 baseline test measures cognitive functioning in the healthy brain. When compared with a post-concussive test, a physician can better evaluate the injury to the brain and develop an individualized course of treatment for optimum recovery.
“When you do have a concussion injury, it can be used as a tool to help you return to play,” said Jennifer Kagan RN, St. Anthony’s Traumatic Brain Injury program coordinator.
The medical center launched the TBI program in 2010 as a response to the growing number of head injuries it was treating, Kagan said. The program, which partners with national brain and spinal cord injury prevention organization Think First, offers educational programs and events within the community and the Summit County school system. ImPACT testing is available for all students at Summit Middle School and Summit High School through Avalanche Physical Therapy in Frisco, as well as through the TBI program at the medical center.
“Educating people about what to do after they’ve sustained a concussion can make recovery time shorter and the outcome a lot better,” Kagan said. “I would encourage parents to look into getting (ImPACT tests) for their kids, especially if they know their kids are going to be routinely involved in soccer, football, skiing and other sports.”
In the past 10 years, Avalanche Physical Therapy has performed the baseline ImPACT testing on more than 900 school-aged athletes in Summit County, said Kim Ramey, a physical therapist at the Avalanche clinic. With ongoing education in the community, more and more students and parents are seeing the benefit from the test because so many often believe a traumatic brain injury would never happen to them, Ramey said.
Recognizing the symptoms
A traumatic brain injury such as a concussion can lead to confusion, memory loss, vision problems and extreme irritability. Traumatic brain injuries are the top traumatic injuries that occur in Summit County, according to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center.
Known in the medical world as TBIs, traumatic brain injuries can include any type of damage to the brain resulting from a traumatic event. Concussions, which are common, are typically considered mild forms of TBIs that are frequent even in those wearing helmets.
“A concussion can be a very hard situation to diagnose. Typically, they’re marked by some kind of altered mental state,” said Melissa Volkert, an occupational therapist at the Avalanche clinic.
In collaboration with St. Anthony, the team at Avalanche Physical Therapy has a protocol in place to further assess patients’ potential exposure to concussions. The therapists will ask patients questions to see how well they’re absorbing information. There can be red flags even in patients on pain medication, Volkert said.
With this process in place, sometimes patients who initially came to the hospital with an orthopedic injury later discover they’ve also suffered a concussion, she said. Identifying a traumatic brain injury early on is important in order to provide appropriate treatment.
“If people don’t identify it right away and go back to work and push themselves, their brain hasn’t been given adequate rest,” she said.
While most concussions clear up in 7 to 10 days, some can last for months, Ramey said. Putting the right strategies in place to help patients return to work and physical activity is important at all stages of a concussion, she said.
“The ultimate goal is for that patient to be able to return to their athletic sport safely,” she said.
For students, getting back to sports is the second priority after a concussion. Before they can return to play, they need to return to learn, Ramey said.
“We want students to be able to return to their full case load at school and full learning schedule before they return to the game,” she said. “You have to be able to cognitively function to be able to play the game safely. Getting a second, third, fourth, fifth concussion — the closer those hits are with less time to heal in between, usually the prognosis for recovery isn’t fast.”
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