This story describes a pilot study that used an app to track cognitive and physical activity in 34 young concussion patients during the two weeks after their injuries. The study, summarized in a letter in JAMA Pediatrics, was designed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to test the feasibility of gathering real-time data from objective measures.
The story contains some original reporting but misleads readers when it takes its lead from the news release and asserts that the observational findings “suggest that the right balance during recovering from concussion may be resting one’s brain but still getting some physical activity.” In reality, the main conclusion of the study was simply that the app can be a useful tool for tracking activity following a concussion.
This misleading notion is reinforced by the headline, “How to heal head injuries? Try a new app.” It’s not available for trying, and it’s not intended to heal head injuries. A more accurate headline would be “Researchers determine app may be reliable way to track activity and symptoms after a concussion, pending further research.”
Concussion was diagnosed in about 1.5 percent of 11- to 19-year-olds in 2015, the highest rate of any age group, according to a Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association report. Since teens and smart phones are pretty much inseparable, an app could be a useful tool for researchers to track symptoms and compliance around activity. Whether a symptom/activity tracking app could have any impact on permanent cognitive damage remains unknown, and news stories need to be clear about that.
The intervention, rest, does not have any obvious costs. (Unless one is working, wherein prescribed rest can result in loss of income.) The tool used to track activity and symptoms could presumably cost money if it’s ever made publicly available.
The nature of the study was to determine if the app was feasible for wider research–and not to see if it was more beneficial than another app (or no app at all) at tracking activity concussion symptoms. For this reason, we’ll give the story a N/A rating on this one.
However, we did want to stress that the story focuses on a secondary finding of the study that makes it sound like it was an intervention trial comparing cognitive activity to physical activity and their impact on concussion symptoms and recovery. We’re told that patients who spent more time reading, playing online games, watching television or working on a computer (so called cognitive activities) reported “more severe symptoms” on the day they engaged in the activity and two days after. And it stated that more physical activity tended to correspond with fewer symptoms over the following two days. Ordinarily, we’d expect to see that put in quantified terms–i.e., how many symptoms is “fewer?” 1 or 10 or 100?
The story mentions the heightened risk of further damage from activity in the days and weeks after a concussion, and the unknowns/uncertainties of this risk.
The story does state that the study was a pilot and that more research is needed. However, this opening line is a misrepresentation of the research findings and overshadows the more cautionary details: “Have a child healing from a head injury? There’s an app for that, and it may help doctors to improve concussion care.”
There is no app publicly available for children healing from a head injury. Only this small group of researchers has access to the tool used in the study. This was a feasibility study to see if the technology worked. It remains to be seen if it does anything other than objectively keep track of symptoms.
The story does not appear to engage in disease mongering. However, it would have been helpful to let readers know how common youth concussions are in addition to noting the recent rise in diagnosed cases.
The story does not use any independent sources such as an outside concussion expert. There do not appear to be any conflicts of interest, but the story could have let readers know that the work was funded by the Penn Medicine Translational Neuroscience Center.
Rest is the standard recommended care for concussion.
In terms of alternatives for tracking concussion symptoms, there does seem to be a plethora of apps available, which the story didn’t mention.
Readers may feel mislead about the availability of the app, given the story’s headline (“How to heal head injuries? Try new app”) which very strongly indicates that not only is this app publicly available, but also that it’s capable of healing head injuries. Neither are true.
The lead may give the false impression that the study broke ground because it suggests “that the right course during recovery from concussion may be resting one’s brain while still getting some physical activity.” The idea that moderate physical activity may improve brain function in concussion patients is not new.
As well, the story suggests there’s a new app to help track concussions, but doesn’t mention that it’s far from the only one. The story should have more clearly explained how this one is different, since parents are likely to be curious.
The story contains original quotes from two researchers and so does not appear to solely rely on Penn’s news release. However, it did echo many of its statements.