Researchers collect concussion data to aid wheelchair athletes

HHP Louisville
Student Sara Herold administers the King-Devick concussion protocol test to an athlete at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Louisville.

Wheelchair basketball is a full-contact sport.

Chairs bump. Knees collide. Elbows fly.

Players often tip over their chairs and crash to the hardwood court.

It’s rough and tumble out there.

Some of the best players, many of whom live with disabilities such as cerebral palsy or spinal cord injuries, rolled on to courts in Louisville, Kentucky, in early April to compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. More than 1,100 adult and youth players were there, playing for championships in their respective divisions.

A group of Radford University faculty and student researchers were there, too, testing athletes for concussions, and collecting valuable data.

Abby Jones, the lead student researcher, noticed the aggressive and competitive nature of the sport as soon as she walked into the gym.

“It was 7:30 in the morning and these kids, no older than 8 or 9, were slamming into each other to block or steal the ball,” the junior from Bristol said.

The tournament offered no shortage of bumps and bangs and falling athletes. There were many chances for injuries, including concussions, said J.P. Barfield, chair of Radford University’s Department of Health and Human Performance.

He and HHP faculty members Angela Mickle and Laura Newsome were there leading the student researchers on the trip funded by the university’s Office of Sponsored Programs and Grants Management. Jones was supported the Douglas J. Ames Jr. Memorial Scholarship

Their mission was to convince as many wheelchair athletes as they could over the three-day tournament to take a concussion test to establish a baseline score.

That was a challenge in many cases.

Players worried that if they tested positive for a concussion, they would be forced to sit out the tournament. That was not the case. Barfield and his crew, therefore, had to educate players, and many coaches, about the tests’ importance. About why it was critical to establish a baseline score for now and for their future.

They also explained to the athletes the many ways concussions can happen.

“A lot of players told us they don’t get hit in the head very often,” Barfield said. “They associate concussion with getting hit in the head only, but the reality is falls are a major cause of concussions in wheelchair athletes. There are a lot of falls in wheelchair sports. It happens all the time.”

Barfield and his team pulled aside about 100 athletes throughout the competition to give them the King-Devick concussion protocol test before and after games. It was administered on a tablet. The tests took only a few minutes to complete.

It shows athletes a set of numbers to read from left to right. The test is timed.

If a player has a concussion, words on the screen become more difficult to process and it will take them longer to read the information. Each athlete is tested twice and the fastest time is recorded for their baseline.

The testing is new to wheelchair basketball, Barfield said. The collected data will be beneficial to the athletes now and long into their playing careers. Once all the data is published, athletes will be able to log on with a password to a secure website that displays their baseline score from each test they have taken.

“The reason this testing and information is so effective is because a lot of these teams don’t have medical personnel,” Barfield said. “So, you need an objective way to see if an athlete is ready to come back to practice after a concussion or if they need to be referred to a medical professional.”

For example, if a player takes the King-Devick tests after suffering a head injury, and the time is five seconds slower than the player’s baseline score, “There are still neurological issues,” Barfield said, “Teams without medical personnel could use King-Devick to objectively make decisions about whether an athlete should be playing.”

There is a typical score range for athletes of various sports such as American football, soccer and rugby, Barfield said.

“So, we – the students, faculty and I – want to establish the same norms for wheelchair athletes,” he explained. “Already, the results are showing that these athletes have a much longer test time, and I think a lot of that is because they have an acquired injury. Maybe they’ve suffered some trauma, which probably had a corresponding concussion. We are investigating because this population may be at more risk.”

Those investigations – Barfield has more planed, including a return to the national tournament next year – are giving Radford University students valuable experience in working with individuals who have various disabilities, “from spina bifida to amputees,” said Chrishaun Morgan, a junior from Waverly.

Anna Burton, a senior Allied Health Sciences major from Radford, tested athletes who have been “wheelchair-bound since they were born and some who had been in a wheelchair for a few months,” she said. “The experience most definitely taught me a lot, and it was very humbling at the same time.”

Being “submerged and introduced into an entirely different athletic community was an absolute joy,” Koby Johnson said. “I was extremely thankful for the athletes who shared their stories with me, and for this experience I will always be able to appreciate and understand wheelchair athletics.”


May 4, 2018
Chad Osborne