10/10/2014 06:21 EDT | Updated 12/10/2014 05:59 EST

Student concussion program sheds light on recovery

An innovative concussion study for high school students in Toronto includes a unique recovery protocol to ensure the brain gets enough time to heal.

The private school St. Michael's College School offers concussion tests to everyone in Grade 9. The baseline computer test results offer a comparison for doctors to assess when students have returned to normal after a concussion.
So far, more than 300 students have been tracked.

The preliminary, unpublished findings suggest that while adults typically take 10 to 14 days to recover, young people need more time.

"What we’ve started to realize is that recovery time is pushed out maybe to three weeks, closer even to a month until they’re finally cleared," said Prof. Michael Hutchinson, director of the sport concussion program at the University of Toronto, who joined forces with St. Mike’s for the study.

Hutchinson and his team aren’t sure why it seems to take young people longer, but they suspect it’s because their bodies are still developing and their brains can’t handle all of the stimuli from class and social lives.

The stress of returning to class too soon could delay recovery, whether the concussion was sustained on the field or somewhere else.

Charlie Skipworth’s head whipped back and snapped on the ground during a football practise. He recalls feeling confused and dazed with a headache, blurred vision and light sensitivity.

"I felt stunned," Skipworth said.

Skipworth had a relapse after he tried to push himself to do too much schoolwork too early on in his recovery.

"I was trying to do too much," Skipworth said. "I ended up getting worse headaches. It put me back. I had to go back stages to do nothing."

Skipworth said he appreciates how the baseline test results helped to guide his recovery process.

New mindset for students

At St. Michael’s College, the unique return-to-school protocol involves consultations with coaches, teachers and parents so students aren’t pressured to hit the field or to hit the books before they’re ready.

While coaches manage return to sport, the program also factors in return to school.

"We’re getting a good understanding about what students can tolerate in each stage of their recovery," said Barbara Csenge, the school’s director of learning enrichment.  

The challenge is to get students to develop a new mindset about how a concussion is an interruption from sports and academics, she said.

The concussion tests are repeated when students are in Grade 11.

The Canadian Paediatric Society also recommends that potential concussions be evaluated medically with a gradual return to play and school.