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Concussion testing

Medically reviewed on Jan 3, 2018

Overview

Concussion testing assesses your brain function before and after a head trauma.

Concussion testing is one of the tools doctors may use to evaluate and manage your health after a head injury.

Concussion

A concussion occurs when a blow to the head or a sudden jolt shakes the head and causes movement of the brain inside the bony and rigid skull.

Why it's done

Concussion testing evaluates your brain's processing and thinking (cognitive) function after a head injury. A baseline concussion test may be performed before a sports season starts for athletes at risk of head injuries.

A baseline concussion test shows how well your brain is currently functioning and may be useful in diagnosing a concussion after an injury. A doctor may perform the test by asking questions, or testing may be done via computer.

This test may be repeated often, especially in younger athletes (usually age 10 and older) whose brains develop and change over time. Some athletes may need a baseline concussion test each year, with neuropsychological testing more often if they've had a concussion or have another medical condition.

After a concussion, testing may be repeated and compared to the previous test to look for any changes in your brain function. It can also be used as a guide to determine when the brain has recovered from a concussion.

Risks after a concussion

If you continue to play or return to play too early after a concussion, there is a significant risk of another concussion. A second concussion sustained while the initial concussion is healing can result in fatal brain swelling (second impact syndrome).

Repeat concussions can take longer to heal. Also, repeat concussions have a higher risk of causing permanent nervous system (neurological) damage.

Children, teens and female athletes may be at a higher risk of concussions than are others, and their recovery may be longer.

Individuals who have had a concussion should not return to play or activities until all symptoms are gone and they have been seen by a health care professional with expertise in evaluating and treating people with concussions.

After concussion symptoms resolve and prior to return to play to a sport or activity, concussed individuals need to participate in a gradually progressive concussion exertional protocol, which usually lasts five to six days. Each day provides exercise that's progressively more challenging in exertion and intensity. Individuals must complete all levels without symptoms recurring to be cleared to return to sport and physical activity.

What you can expect

Before a concussion

You may need a baseline concussion test before the sports season starts. A baseline concussion test is often performed using a computerized test. The computerized test is similar to playing a video game.

Computerized baseline concussion testing offers a fast, efficient way for many athletes to test their baseline brain function. The tests take about 15 minutes to complete.

After a concussion

You may have another computerized concussion test after a concussion. Depending on your performance on the computerized test and comparison to baseline testing (if available), you may repeat the test several times for up to a few weeks.

This test is one of the tools to help doctors determine when your brain function has returned to normal. Doctors may use this along with other tests to decide when you may be able to safely resume normal activities.

Results

Returning to play

If tests show your brain function has returned to normal, but you're still experiencing symptoms from your concussion, then doctors will advise you not to return to sports until your symptoms are gone. Although many concussions resolve quickly, some athletes may experience symptoms for weeks, months or longer.

Doctors will also review your history and symptoms and perform a neurologic examination to test your balance and other brain functions. If your concussion symptoms do not resolve and persist, a doctor trained in brain and mental health conditions (neuropsychologist) may perform more-detailed testing to further assess changes in brain function.

Your treatment team will determine when you're able to return to sports, school and other activities.

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