Why athletes need a baseline concussion test

craig.hill@thenewstribune.comAugust 25, 2013 

The importance of baseline concussion testing sank in with one seemingly easy question.

What day of the month is it?

I had no idea.

The question that tripped up my 12-year-old son was even easier.

What day of the week is it?

“I don’t know, it’s summer break,” Alex said to Josh Waltier, director of athletic training for Apple Physical Therapy.

Starting this school year, baseline concussion testing is a requirement for athletes playing contact sports in many South Sound school districts. However, Waltier says these tests are a good idea for anybody who mountain bikes, skis, climbs or engages in other recreational activities with the potential for a head injury.

“Having a baseline test allows us to compare an individual athlete to themselves,” Waltier said. “How they would perform under normal circumstances and then how they’d perform after recovering from a concussion.”

The test takes about eight minutes, and the cost for many high school athletes is underwritten by their school districts. There is a small fee ($10 at Apple Physical Therapy) for everybody else.

Thanks to the abundance of publicity surrounding head injuries in the NFL, there’s no more talked-about injury in sports today than concussions. It is an important conversation to have, Waltier said.

“You only get one brain and you have to use it for the rest of your life.”

Because diagnosing a concussion is more difficult than many other injuries, the more trainers and doctors know about athletes, the better their chances of getting the diagnosis right and helping them return to their sport after the injury.

If my son and I had walked into Waltier’s Federal Way office following a head injury and failed to recall the date or the day of the week, there might have been more cause for concern.

We were both a little embarrassed to have flubbed such easy questions, but Waltier put us at ease.

“Maybe you’re just one of those people who doesn’t know what day of the month it is,” he said.

In fact, I am. I check my watch or a calendar almost every time I need to know the date. Once when signing a ream of documents to acquire a home loan, I checked my watch so many times the loan officer laughed at me.

Now that this bit of information is part of my medical record, it can be taken into account should I ever sustain a concussion.

“It’s important that we don’t compare all athletes to each other,” Waltier said. “Everybody is different. ... Knowing that information gives us more information for making decisions appropriate for return to play.”

The baseline test I took, called the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool, is the same as the one used by the NFL, FIFA and many other professional sports. The test my son took was designed for children 5-12 and was only slightly different.

The test involves answering questions about past concussions and reciting a list of words and numbers designed to test your immediate memory and concentration.

Additionally, tests are administered to examine the athlete’s neck, balance and coordination.

While athletes who are showing concussion symptoms should be taken to a physician, Waltier says the testing information helps determine when it is appropriate to start the return-to-play program that takes a minimum of five days.

“The baseline tests are a piece of the puzzle,” Waltier said. “It’s good information to have.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com thenewstribune.com/fitness @AdventureGuys

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