What to Expect in the New Concussion Guidelines

Andrew N. Wilner, MD; Shae Datta, MD


May 17, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Andrew N. Wilner, MD: Welcome to Medscape. I'm your host, Dr Andrew Wilner, reporting virtually from the 2023 American Academy of Neurology (AAN) Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. It's my pleasure today to speak with Dr Shae Datta, co-director of the NYU Langone Concussion Center.

She's also a clinical assistant professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine. Dr Datta is chair of the AAN Sports Neurology Section, and she's leading a panel on concussion at this year's meeting. She's going to give us an update. Welcome, Dr Datta.

Shae Datta, MD: Thank you so much, Andrew. I really love the fact that I'm here speaking to you about all of the new, exciting developments in the field.

Wilner: Before we get too deep, tell us how you got interested in this topic.

Datta: I initially thought, when I was in training as a resident, that I wanted to do something like neurocritical care or EEG. It also puzzled me why these seemingly smaller head injuries that didn't end up in the hospital or ICU were bounced from neurology headache clinic to neuro-ophthalmology headache clinic to neurovestibular headache clinic, and nobody seemed to be able to put together the dots about why they're having so many different issues — but at the same time, nobody could help them.

At that time, this field was very new. I was on a plane to Paris to a neurocritical care conference as a resident, and I saw the movie Concussion with Will Smith.

It featured one of my current mentors who taught at the fellowship that I graduated from, and it was a fascinating field. I just started looking deeply into it, and I saw that there was a new training fellowship for sports neurology and concussion management, and this is basically why we're here today.

New Concussion Consensus Guidelines Coming

Wilner: I think this field has really exploded. It used to be that you banged your head, you did a CT scan — remember, I trained about 45 years ago — and if there was nothing on the CT scan, you were done. If you had headaches, you took Tylenol until they went away.

Now, we do MRI, and we realized that it's really a syndrome. I understand that there are going to be some formal guidelines that have been put together. Is that correct?

Datta: That's correct. The 6th International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport, in Amsterdam, where I attended and presented a poster, was really a meeting of all the best minds — clinicians and researchers in brain injury — to form a consensus on the newest guidelines that are going to direct our treatment going forward.

Wilner: I'm going to ask you a trick question because the last time I looked it up I did not get a satisfying answer. What is a concussion?

Datta: That's a very good question, and everyone always asks. A concussion is an external force that is emitted upon the head or the neck, or the body, in general, that may cause temporary loss of function. It's a functional problem.

We don't see much on CT. We can do MRI. We can do SPECT or we can do these very fancy images, sometimes, of high-velocity head injuries and see small microhemorrhages.

Often, we don't see anything, but still the patient is loopy. They can't see straight. They are double-visioned. They have vertigo. Why is that happening? On the cellular level, we have an energy deficit in the sodium-potassium-ATPase pump of the neurons themselves.

Wilner: Suppose you do see diffuse axonal injury; does that take it out of concussion, or can you have a concussion with visible injury?

Datta: I think you can have overlap in the symptoms. The diffuse axonal injury would put it into a higher grade of head injury as opposed to a mild traumatic brain injury. Definitely, we would need to work together with our trauma doctors to ensure that patients are not on blood thinners or anything until they heal well enough. Obviously, I would pick them up as an outpatient and follow them until we resolve or rehab them as best as possible.

Concussion Assessment Tools

Wilner: There are many sports out there where concussions are fairly frequent, like American football and hockey, for example. Are there any statements in the new guidelines?

Datta: There are no statements for or against a particular sport because that would really make too much of a bold statement about cause and effect. There is a cause and effect in long-term, repetitive exposure, I would say, in terms of someone being able to play or sustain injury.

Right now, at least at the concussion conference I went to and in the upcoming consensus statement, they will not comment on a specific sport. Obviously, we know that the higher-impact sports are a little more dangerous.

Let's be honest. At the high school, middle school, or even younger level, some kids are not necessarily the most athletic, right? They play because their friends are playing. If they're repeatedly getting injured, it's time for an astute clinician, or a coach, and a whole team to assess them to see if maybe this person is just going to continue to get hurt if they're not taken out of the game and perhaps they should go to a lower-impact sport.

Wilner: In schools, often there's a big size and weight difference. There are 14-year-olds who are '6 ft 2" in and 200 lb, and there are 14-year-olds who are '5 ft 2" in and 110 lb. Obviously, they're mismatched on the football field.

You mentioned coaches. Is there anything in the guidelines about training coaches?

Datta: Specifically, there was nothing in the guidelines about that. There's a tool for coaches at every level to use, which is called the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool, or SCAT, which is going to be updated to the SCAT6. At the NCAA level, they must receive annual training on concussion management and be given an NCAA concussion handout for coaches.

Obviously, there are more rigorous protocols for national-level coaching. As it stands now, it is not mandatory, but they are given tools to assess someone once they've gotten a hit to take them out of the game.

Wilner: I've been following the concussion research through the years. They did some neuropsychological testing on athletes who've had this many concussions or that many concussions, and they would find deficits here or subtle deficits there, but they had no baseline.

Then, there was a movement to start testing athletes before the season starts so that they could do a repeat test after concussion and see if there is any difference. Is that something we're recommending?

Datta: Most of the time, NCAA-level — certainly where I trained — and national-level sports do testing, but it's not everywhere. Prior guidelines have indicated that preseason testing is not required. That is largely because there has been no standardized neuropsychological testing established.

There are computerized testing options where the validity and reliability are questionable. Also, let's say it's a college student; they didn't sleep all night and then they took this computer test. They would probably do worse than they would if they had received a head hit.

Just to be on the safe side, most places that have collegiate-level sports that are at a high level do preseason testing. If I were to speak personally, aside from the guidelines, I would say that it's been helpful for me to look at the before and after, in general, overall, to make a decision about my treatment protocol.

Wilner: Let's talk about the patient. You have a 20-year-old guy. He's playing football. There's a big play. Bonk, he gets hit on the head. He's on the ground. He's dazed, staggers a little bit, gets up, and you ask how he is feeling. He says he's fine and then he wobbles off to the sideline. What do you do with that kid?

Datta: Obviously, the first thing is to remove him from the play environment to a quiet space. Second, either an athletic trainer or a coach would administer basic screening neurologic tests, such as "where are you, what's today's date, what is your name?" and other orientation questions.

They'll also go through the SCAT — that'll be SCAT6 starting in July — the SCAT5 symptom questionnaire to see what symptoms they have. Often, they're using sideline testing software.

There are two things that can be used on a card to test eye movements, to see if they're slower. They come out of NYU, coincidentally — the Memory Image Completion (MIC) and the Mobile Universal Lexicon Evaluation System (MULES) — and are used to determine whether eye movements are slower. That way, you can tell whether someone is, compared with before they got their head hit, slower than before.

Based on this composite information, usually the teammates and the head people on the team will know if a player looks different.

They need to be taken out, obviously, if there is nausea or vomiting, any neurologic signs and symptoms, or a neck injury that needs to be stabilized. ABCs first, right? If there's any vomiting or seizures, they should be taken to the ER right away.

The first thing is to take them out, then do a sideline assessment. Third, see if they need to immediately go to the ER vs follow-up outpatient with me within a day or two.

Wilner: I think it's the subtle injuries that are the tough ones. Back to our 20-year-old. He says, "Oh, I'm fine. I want to go back in the game." Everybody can tell he's not quite right, even though he passed all the tests. What do you do then?

Datta: You have to make a judgment call for the safety of the player. They always want to go back, right? This is also an issue when they're competing for college scholarships and things of that nature. Sometimes they're sandbagging, where they memorize the answers.

Everything's on the internet nowadays, right? We have to make a judgment call as members of the healthcare community and the sports community to keep that player safe.

Just keep them out. Don't bring them back in the game. Keep them out for a reasonable amount of time. There's a test called the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test; Dr John Leddy from University of Buffalo has developed a way for us to put athletes through a screening protocol.

This can be part of their vestibular and ocular rehabilitation, where if they don't have symptoms when we bring their heart rate to certain levels, then we can slowly clear them for return to play as long as they're nonsymptomatic.

Wilner: I spoke with your colleague, Dr Riggins, who is also on your panel, and we were talking about when they can go back. She said they can go back when they don't have any symptoms. No more headache, no more dizziness, no more lightheadedness, no more trouble concentrating or with memory — all those things have gone away.

Sometimes these symptoms are stubborn. If you have, say, 100 patients like our 20-year-old who got bonked on the head, has some headaches, and doesn't feel quite right, what usually happens? How many are back to play the next day, the next week, or the next month? How many are out for the season? How does that play out?

Datta: It depends on a couple of different factors. One, have they had previous head injuries? Two, do they have preexisting symptoms or signs, or diagnoses like migraines, which are likely to get worse after a head injury? Anything that's preexisting, like a mood disorder, anxiety, depression, or trouble sleeping, is going to get worse.

If they were compensating for untreated ADD or borderline personality or bipolar, I've seen many people who've developed them. These are not the norm, but I'm saying that you have to be very careful.

Getting back to the question, you treat them. Reasonably, if they're healthy and they don't have preexisting signs and symptoms, I would say more than half are back in about 2 weeks.. I would say 60%-70%. It all depends. If they have preexisting issues, then it's going to take much longer.


Wilner: This has been very informative. Before we wrap up, tell us what to expect from these guidelines in July. How are they really going to help?

Datta: The consensus statement is going to come out with something called a SCOAT, which stands for Sport Concussion Office Assessment Tool. We've been using the SCAT, which was meant for more sideline assessment because that's all we had, and it's worked perfectly well.

This will be better because we often see them within 24-48 hours, when the symptoms are sometimes a little bit better.

We also will see the sport and concussion group come up with added athlete perspectives, ethics discussion, power-sport athlete considerations, and development of this new SCOAT.

Wilner: Dr Datta, this is very exciting. I look forward to reading these guidelines in July. I want to thank you for your hard work. I also look forward to talking to you at next year's meeting. Thank you very much for giving us this update.

Datta: No problem. It's my pleasure.

Wilner: I'm Dr Andrew Wilner, reporting for Medscape.

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