After the concussion

Short stuff: Health roundup

After a blow to the head, everyone wants to know when an athlete can play again. Dr. Shaun O’Leary, assistant professor of neurosurgery and attending neurosurgeon at Rush University in Chicago and Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, says this question comes up all the time, especially with young athletes.

An athlete and coach himself—and dad to kids playing contact sports—O’Leary is excited about a new Web-based system that can help answer that question.

ImPACT is a neurocognitive screening tool that can be used to determine the severity of a concussion and when it’s safe for athletes to get back to their sports.

According to The Centers for Disease Control, 1.6 to 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur in the U.S. annually. Concussions result from a bump or jolt to the head or body that makes the brain rock in the skull and affects the brain’s normal functioning.

O’Leary says the biggest risk for kids who return to play too soon after a concussion is that they are at greater risk for re-injury or suffering another concussion. Multiple concussions can cause chronic headaches and other problems.

“ImPACT gives me something more objective to tell parents,” he says.

With ImPACT, a pre-test before the injury measures a baseline reading of an athlete’s neurocognitive functional state (how his or her thinking is working). The 20-minute test evaluates memory, speed and decision-making and records the results.

If the athlete suffers a head injury, an assessment is completed on the field or in the ER. When they are retested and back at their baseline, it’s safe to play.

A pre-test isn’t absolutely necessary to benefit from ImPACT, says O’Leary, who explains that a lot of data has been collected to provide a comparable baseline for those who haven’t been tested.

ImPACT is used by teams in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, auto racing, the Olympics and several high school and college programs across the country. O’Leary, who’s the first credentialed ImPACT consultant in Chicago, stresses he isn’t paid by the company, but rather learned about the program and got excited about it"out of concern for the kids I was seeing.”

Athletes don’t need to be part of a team using the technology. Parents can do this for their children. Information can be found at the ImPACT Web site,, or you can contact O’Leary through either of the hospitals where he works.

When it comes to concussions, the critical take-away for parents is that they happen, O’Leary says.

“And the kids need to be assessed before returning to any sport. These injuries shouldn’t be underestimated.”

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