The symptoms that follow a concussion are typically seen as a measure of the severity of an injury and how close to recovery a person is. Once the symptoms are gone, common knowledge would suggest a person is healed. However, researchers say that may not be entirely accurate.
A growing body of research indicates a number of issues can linger well after the most noticeable symptoms have faded away.
Now, a new study from researchers at the University of Georgia says a concussion can have a long-lasting effect on a person’s ability to drive a vehicle – even after their symptoms have disappeared.
As Julianne Schmidt, associate professor in the UGA College of Education’s department of kinesiology and lead author on the study, explains, participants in the study who said they believed they had recovered from a concussion were still likely to drive erratically while using a driving simulator. Schmidt compared their driving to someone under the influence of alcohol.
“They had less vehicle control while they were doing the driving simulation, and they swerved more within the lane,” Schmidt said. “This is a pretty large indicator of motor vehicle accident risk, and this is at a time point when they are considered recovered.”
For the study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, Schmidt’s team recruited 14 college-age participants who were within 48 hours of no longer feeling noticeable symptoms from their concussion. Overall, the participants performed more poorly than control tests.
Schmidt says it is one of the first studies to examine the influence of a concussion on a person’s driving ability. This is a concern for the professor, as she points out there are significantly more regulations regarding concussions in athletics than in general life.
“In athletics, we don’t restrict their driving before their symptoms resolve. Often, people will get a concussion and drive home from the event or practice that caused the concussion — there are no restrictions there,” said Schmidt. “Whereas, we would never let them go out on the field or court; we’re very strict about that.”
Based on the findings, she believes individuals with concussions should be restricted from driving at least until their symptoms clear. For now, her team plans to further pinpoint when driving abilities begin to improve following a concussion and draft guidelines regarding driving.
“The driving simulation shows they are performing very differently on the road compared to people who are not concussed, even after such symptoms resolve,” she said. “We have very fine-tuned recommendations for when a concussed individual is ready to return to sport and the classroom, but we don’t even mention driving in our recommendations. And only 50 percent of people intend to restrict their driving at any point following a concussion — which means that by the time they are feeling better, they are almost certainly on the road.”