Concussion test draws praise from parents, mixed reviews from doctors
HALIFAX – Brock Saumure, 17, still isn’t sure what happened that fateful day in May of this year, but one thing is clear – that’s the day the high school student got a concussion.
“I was told I had hit somebody the wrong way in rugby. The next day, I wasn’t right. I wasn’t finishing my sentences. I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a concussion,” the athlete said.
The teen from Timberlea said his condition was upgraded to a severe concussion a few weeks later. He describes the next few months as full of sensitivity to light and noise and full of headaches.
“It’s awful to be perfectly blunt with it,” he said.
“It’s nerve-wracking to think your child has had something like that happen to him,” said mother Deidra Saumure.
“Watching your child have no control over certain things is a sickly feeling.”
The teen abstained from sports during his recovery but now, he is strapping on his shoes and buckling up his helmet as he prepares to join the football team at Sir John A. MacDonald High School this fall.
And the first thing on his list is a baseline test.
Baseline testing is a series of tests designed to get a reading on an athlete. It can consist of strength, balance, visual tracking, memory and reaction tests.
It is meant to give doctors a reading of what an athlete’s ‘baseline’ is that way if he or she gets a concussion, the athlete can be monitored to see when he or she gets back to ‘normal’.
Robbie MacDonald, the co-owner of Nova Physiotherapy, said there is a difference between when an athlete feels 100 per cent better and when he or she is symptom free, which is where baseline testing comes in handy.
“What we’re able to do is have all these things assessed and establish what the individual normals are for that particular athlete. Then we’ll be able to better decide when safe return to play is for that athlete,” he said.
“We can actually say what the person was like before the concussion was received, and we can determine whether or not they’ve actually reached pre-concussion status.”
The company was approached by Complete Concussion Management to implement baseline testing.
MacDonald is proposing athletes of all ages get tested, particularly young athletes.
“That’s where the brain is still developing. People are more susceptible and more vulnerable to trauma to the brain,” he said.
“We would propose they do baseline testing every year, pre-season. Their baseline could certainly change from year to year, things like memory and recall visual tracking, as somebody grows and matures, sometimes these things could definitely be different.”
However, not everyone is on board with that idea.
Dr. Kevin Gordon, a pediatric neurologist at the IWK and a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University, said baseline testing can be both a good and bad tool.
Gordon said he recommends baseline testing for athletes who play high-risk sports, such as football, and those who are considering turning professional.
“Should it be incorporated into children’s sports? I’m not sure because I’m talking about a high cost with a low probability of something happening. Generally, 85 per cent of concussions recover within one to two weeks,” he said.
Gordon also shares concerns about baseline testing for children, whose results could be non-existent or change dramatically since they are still developing.
“It’s going to have to be done again next year because children change on an annual basis. Once you commit to a pre-testing environment, you are committing to annual re-checks to update your data,” he said.
“There may be many reasons why you can’t get a baseline on a kid. Someone who is inattentive, who can’t focus on the test well enough to actually get a reliable score.”
He also said the ‘normal’ gathered on an athlete is relative, saying what is normal pre-concussion may not be what is normal post-concussion.
“If you have a migraine and you tell on a scale of zero to 10, it’s an eight. If then you encounter a kidney stone after that, you’ll tell me your migraine is a two,” he said.
“If I had allowed them to return to play at their so-called baseline, I would have allowed them back in the game and I think that’s just a little too liberal an interpretation of a baseline test.”
The neurologist also reminds parents that baseline testing is just that – a test.
“The testing doesn’t prevent the concussion from happening. The testing just tells you where you were before the concussion happened,” he said.
Gordon said he would rather educate parents better on the signs and symptoms of concussions and what they can do in the event their children sustains one.
But for parents of athletes, like Deidra Saumure, baseline testing is a security blanket.
“He’s young. He has a whole life ahead of him,” she said of her son. “It’s important to me to make sure everything is fine up there.”
As for Brock, he admits he often wonders not if, but when, his next concussion will be.
“All the time. I worry I’m going to fall. I worry I’m going to hit somebody the wrong way. [That] Something’s going to happen,” he said.
The teen admits that besides buckling up his helmet, he isn’t taking many other precautions to ensure he does not get another concussion. But he is confident about getting baseline testing.
“I can see what I’m like before a concussion. I can see what I’m normally like and afterward I can see how far my brain has been damaged or altered to see what kind of issue we’re dealing with.”
“This is my precaution.”