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mHealth, Social Gaming Combined in Concussion Treatment for Teens

Researchers have embedded social gaming techniques into an mHealth app to help teens deal with the physical and emotional after-effects of a concussion.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center are combining an mHealth app and gaming technology to help teens recover from a concussion.

The two health systems have partnered with the California-based Institute for the Future on a new mHealth app, called SuperBetter, which uses social gaming techniques to help youths 13-18 years old deal with the after-effects of a concussion, which often include emotional issues.

"Pairing the social, mobile app SuperBetter with traditional medical care appears to improve outcomes and optimism for youth with unresolved concussion symptoms,” Dr. Kelsey Logan, director of the division of sports medicine at Cincinnati Children's, said in a press release.

The app creates a game in which symptoms of a concussion are treated as villains and medical recommendations are used as weapons, or power-ups. In that manner, users would learn to combat symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and confusion with sleep, sunglasses and an academic concussion management plan.

The app was tested in a recent study, focusing on teens experiencing concussion symptoms more than three weeks after the injury. Of the 19 teens involved in the study, as reported in the journal Brain Injury, a majority used the app as prescribed (once a day) and said they enjoyed using it. Symptoms and optimism also improved more for the app users than for a control group receiving traditional care.

With the alarming increase in diagnosed concussions occurring from pro sports leagues all the way down to children’s leagues (in high school alone, the rate has doubled since 2005), healthcare providers are turning to a variety of mHealth and telehealth tools to better detect and treat the issue. This includes mHealth programs loaded onto laptops, tablets and smartphones, VR-enabled smartglasses, sensor-embedded wearables such as clothing, caps and activity bands, even robots that act as decision support tools for first responders at athletic events.

The American Academy of Neurology recommends that those diagnosed with a concussion limit cognitive and physical effort and avoid sports altogether until the symptoms clear without the aid of medication. But researchers note that teens experiencing this type of lifestyle change often also experience social isolation, depression and other behavioral issues.

“In addition, cognitive rest often involves limiting screen stimulation associated with popular modes of interpersonal interaction, such as text messaging and social networking on digital platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and multiplayer video gaming, thereby blocking common avenues for social connection,” the researchers said in their press release.

With SuperBetter, they’re looking to increase patient engagement by giving teens something they enjoy.

"We found that mobile apps incorporating social game mechanics and a heroic narrative can complement medical care to improve health among teenagers with unresolved concussion symptoms, Lise Worthen-Chaudhari, a physical rehabilitation specialist who studies movement at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center's Neurological Institute and lead author of the study, said.

"Teens who've had a concussion are told not to use media or screens, and we wanted to test if it was possible for them to use screens just a little bit each day, and get the bang for the buck with that," she added. "The app rewrites things you might be frustrated about as a personal, heroic narrative. So you might start out feeling 'I'm frustrated. I can't get rid of this headache,' and then the app helps reframe that frustration to 'I battled the headache bad guy today. And I feel good about that hard work.'"

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