RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Athletes playing contact sports used to treat injuries from a knock on the head as no big deal, but brain specialists and sports doctors are now expressing more concern about the long-term effects of concussions. That's why some researchers are trying to devise quick and simple ways to help decide if somebody has had a concussion. NPR's Richard Knox reports.
RICHARD KNOX: Megan Garland(ph) knows that a concussion can be serious, that's why she's gone to see Boston neurologist Frances Jensen.
FRANCES JENSEN: So you're here because of headaches, right?
MEGAN GARLAND: Yep.
JENSEN: So how old are you?
GARLAND: I'm 17.
JENSEN: Seventeen? Ok.
KNOX: Back in December, Garland had a nasty fall.
GARLAND: So I slipped on black ice, fell flat on my head.
JENSEN: So you had head injury?
GARLAND: Yeah. And I went to bed, woke up and I just felt like the worst headache I've ever had in my life
KNOX: And the headaches didn't stop. Garland's had them for nearly three months now, sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting. And her mother says she's also been uncharacteristically irritable. Jensen tests Garland's strength and reflexes.
JENSEN: Let's just see you straighten your fingers out. Good. Excellent. Okay. Make a muscle, don't let me pull, all right, like this. Very good.
KNOX: Doctors see lots of patients like Megan Garland. Connecticut neurologist Anthony Alessi says it's not at all unusual to see adolescents who've had repeated concussions. That's troubling, because young brains are more susceptible to injury.
ANTHONY ALESSI: We know that the developing brain really needs time to do just that: develop. So any repeated head injury becomes an issue of concern.
KNOX: Eckner's test measures reaction time, which is often impaired after a concussion. It's really simple. It's just a hockey puck on the end of a stick. The stick has regular markings.
JAMES ECKNER: The person being tested would be sitting down with their forearm resting on the table. We suspend the device so that their hand is around the hockey puck at the bottom of the device, and without warning we drop it and they just catch it as quickly as they can.
KNOX: Eckner says his test has the advantage of being low-tech.
ECKNER: It's like the stethoscope compared to the echocardiogram. It doesn't give you quite as much information, but it's something you can put in your pocket and carry with you and use very easily.
KNOX: The hockey puck on a stick test needs more work. Even if it holds up, Anthony Alessi, the Connecticut neurologist says it's never going to be a standalone test to rule out a concussion.
ALESSI: We all want a simple, quick, easy test that's going to tell us exactly what to do, and that's just not the case.
KNOX: Once a young athlete's had a concussion, it's important to avoid another, so sometimes it's necessary to make a hard decision. That's the message that neurologist Frances Jensen wants to leave with Megan Garland who's due to start lacrosse practice next month.
JENSEN: If you're going to be taking a sport that might put you at risk for head injury, that would probably be not a great thing.
KNOX: Richard Knox, NPR News.
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