Penn study suggests rapid test for concussion in sports

Millions of athletes a year suffer head trauma, and there is growing evidence that repeat concussions — especially without time for rest and healing — may lead to permanent neurological damage.

Problem is, concussions are not always obvious to coaches, and highly competitive players sometimes deny symptoms to get back in the game. So there is a crying need for a rapid screening administered on the sidelines.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggest one already exists. The King-Devick test, used for years to measure rapid eye movements that can interfere with reading, correlated well with a more comprehensive test for concussion in a small study of boxing and mixed martial arts.

The K-D test involves simply reading a series of numbers — as rapidly as possible without errors — from three test cards (like the demo shown at left). A change in one’s ability to do so can “capture impairment of eye movements, attention, language, and other areas that correlate with suboptimal brain function,” the authors wrote Wednesday in the online edition of the journal Neurology.

The researchers tested 39 athletes before matches and again afterward. Head trauma was determined by ringside physicians and a test known as the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation.

The 31 competitors who showed no signs of injury improved their reading speed by a median 1.9 seconds. The eight with head trauma were 11.1 seconds slower. The four who had also lost consciousness were 18 seconds slower.

The finding needs to be confirmed, and Penn has an ongoing study of collegiate athletes. But K-D is a “strong candidate” for sideline concussion screening in  contact sports, the researchers wrote.

Most of the 12 authors of the study, which was funded by the National Eye Institute, are scientists affiliated with Penn and other institutions. One, Steve Devick, was a codeveloper of the test and is CEO of the Illinois company that sells it (in packets starting at $50) and is developing an iPad application.

View a video of how it works.