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An overview of baseline, sideline, and post-concussion tests for head injuries

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Have you or your loved one ever suffered a blow to the head after a fall? During a car accident? At work? Or while playing a sport? Without evident effects, you may have brushed it off. You probably experienced a headache or nausea but thought it would go away later on. But brain injury can happen to anyone. Anywhere. Anytime. And it’s not always easy to detect.

To properly assess head injuries, you need to undergo a concussion test, whether you have evident traumatic brain injury symptoms or not. If you’re an athlete, you need to get a concussion test before a game or practice. Organizations are required to have a concussion protocol to prepare them and to help them respond to head injuries.

Most brain traumas are mild, but they could have long-term effects. Let’s talk about mild traumatic brain injury and what concussion tests are available to determine proper treatment or therapy.

What is a mild traumatic brain injury?

Mild traumatic brain injuries result from a forceful motion or impact of the head. Common symptoms include confusion, disorientation, loss of memory, or loss of consciousness for less than 30 minutes.

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that affects brain function. It can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head. A sudden impact on the body can also cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, creating chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells.

Causes of a mild traumatic brain injury

You may have an mTBI or concussion if you’ve experienced any of the following:

  • Unexpected fall
  • Unexpectedly being struck by or against a foreign object
  • Car-related injury
  • Assault by another person or animal
  • Collision with a person or object

Symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury

After experiencing a concussion, your symptoms may be subtle and may not be present or noticed at the time of injury. Symptoms may not appear for days or even weeks.

A person with a brain injury may look and move normally, but may not feel well or think right. That’s why consulting with a medical practitioner immediately after a brain injury is imperative to diagnosing an mTBI.

Some common symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury are:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Vision problems
  • Memory loss
  • Poor focus and concentration
  • Sleep problems
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Irritability
  • Seizure
  • Nausea
  • Loss of smell
  • Sensitivity to light and sounds
  • Mood changes
  • Getting lost or confused
  • Slowness in thinking

It’s easy to overlook mild traumatic brain injuries and concussions, but you can catch them early with the help of a concussion test.

How to properly assess concussion and brain injury

There are different types of concussion tests depending on the timing and severity of a head injury.

Baseline concussion test

A baseline test is administered by athletic trainers, coaches, and medical professionals. This is done before activities that may cause concussions. The results will be the basis of normal brain function and will be used to compare later brain assessment results.

  • King-Devick test: The K-D test, also called the 1-minute or 2-minute concussion test, is often used in sports. The coach or trainer asks each athlete to read random numbers on three index cards. Each reading is timed and will serve as the normal reading time before any physical activity.

    After an injury to the head, the athlete is required to retake the test. If the athlete reads the numbers as little as five seconds slower than the initial testing, they may have a concussion. You can also use this concussion test at home.

Sideline concussion tests

Sideline tests are administered by athletic trainers, coaches, and sports medical professionals on the sidelines following an injury. These are also used by emergency medical personnel in the ER. These tests are used to assess a person’s mental status immediately after a traumatic injury.

  • SAC test: Coaches, trainers, and medical professionals used the standardized assessment of concussion tests on the sidelines and at the ER to assess a person’s mental status. It often takes five minutes to complete and involves the following:
    • Asking the patient to state the current date, month, year, day of the week, and time
    • Saying a sequence of numbers backward
    • Reciting the months of the year in reverse order
    • Memorizing a list of words and repeating them

Note: Concussion assessment tools aren’t a substitute for evaluation from a medical provider. In sports, an athlete cannot be let back into a game without clearance from a medical professional.

Post-concussion tests

Post-concussion tests are administered by medical professionals to patients experiencing post-concussion symptoms. This will require more thorough testing to determine why patients are still experiencing concussion symptoms beyond the recovery period.

  • EEG: Electroencephalography is a clinical diagnostic exam that helps detect abnormal brain function after a head injury. One type, called quantitative EEG, is used as an assessment tool for mTBI and post-concussion syndrome.

Brain scans for head injuries

The first tests most people think they need after a head injury are brain scans. Although they can help detect injuries in the brain, they don’t necessarily detect mild concussions.

  • CT scan: A computerized tomography scan can help show if there’s bleeding or fracture in the brain. However, it doesn’t help diagnose traumatic brain injuries. Patients would have to get additional testing or may skip this scan altogether.

    Studies have proven that routine CT scans after a head injury can still return normal results, even though the patient may still have an early brain injury that puts them at risk for long-term brain damage called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or Traumatic Brain Injury.

You could even suffer from Degenerative Brain Disease, as seen in football players and army veterans returning home from tours of duty in war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan.

  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging is a medical exam that can help detect smaller injuries, most of which a CT scan may miss. It’s useful in checking signs of older or repeated injuries to the brain.

Get your head tested

Most concussions resolve without treatment. However, there’s no way to tell if the brain is all good up there unless you get tested. Post-concussion symptoms may last up to three months and may not need any kind of treatment.
But if your condition gets worse or if you experience new symptoms, you must seek medical attention at the nearest urgent care center immediately. You may need to undergo concussion tests to find out if you’ll require medication or therapy. If everything looks fine, you may just need to get enough rest and avoid stress until you fully recover.

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