Concussions & Your Child

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A concussion is a brain injury that happens when a blow to the head shakes the brain inside the skull. It results in a neurometabolic cascade that changes behavior. It can cause headache, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness, and prolonged symptoms like depression, anxiety, and insomnia. When the brain is shaken in a young athlete, it can lead to prolonged symptoms that can last up to two months, even up to two years if unrecognized and poorly managed.

Over time, concussions can cause extended memory loss, depression, or other symptoms of brain dysfunction. Brain injuries like concussions have received a lot of attention in sports lately. The focus on concussion in children is especially important to those who play sports at a young age. At the Olympics this summer there were lot of young spectators hoping to someday emulate soccer players who win the game by heading the ball with uncanny accuracy.

But even seasoned Olympic players support a current campaign that recommends that those kids not be taught “headers” until they’re high school age, after their brains and necks have had a chance to develop. A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 showed that while football had the greatest incidence of concussions among high school athletes, girls’ soccer was second.

The concussion issue doesn’t just address soccer or football. Other sports consistently included are hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, and cheerleading. The risk of head injuries has many parents asking: are sports too dangerous for our kids? How can the game be made safer?

Some experts think kids should wait until they’re 14 to play contact sports. Blows to the head can be dangerous no matter what age you are, but they’re especially unsafe for kids as their brains are still developing and their neck muscles are weak. That means a kid’s brain shakes more violently after a hard hit than an adult’s would. This is generally called the “bobblehead doll effect.”

Too many jarring hits can have long-lasting effects. Recent studies seem to show a link between years of hard hits and brain damage in some former pro football players. For kids, waiting until high school to play football might mean thousands fewer blows to the head.

A Safer Sport?
Leagues are also focusing on teaching kids to tackle with their shoulders and not lead with their heads. USA Football is the youth football partner of the National Football League (NFL). It created a program called Heads Up Football that is used by about 2,800 youth leagues. Heads Up program promotes safer tackling. It teaches kids from a very early age the proper tackling techniques. Officials in youth leagues say tackling will always be a part of football but they’re working hard to better protect their players. In 2012, Pop Warner Football added rules to limit tackling during practice. Like other youth leagues, they’re also training coaches and players to spot the warning signs of concussions. Today there’s even the development of a chin strap that changes color when a player may have suffered a concussion. This is aimed at reducing and identifying head injuries.

One of the difficulties in identifying whether or not a player has experienced a concussion relies on a student’s input following a collision. Most kids would say anything to remain in the game while in high school, including hiding symptoms such as dizziness from a trainer or coach.

The athletic and coaching staff have to base their diagnosis on whether a kid can play or not on what the player says. They can’t always know. Most 16–17 year-old-kids want to play sports more than anything.

Recognizing when a youth has sustained a concussion and allowing the brain time to recover is key to preventing further damage that could have lifelong implications. A small percentage of school athletes have lingering symptoms and need to be re-evaluated two and sometimes three times afterward.

After a concussion, the brain needs rest in order to heal. Taking a break from sports also is critical in preventing second-impact syndrome, which can occur if an athlete sustains a second concussion while still recovering from the first. A second impact can lead to irreversible brain damage.

The message that the brain needs to recover after an injury is not always an easy sell to youths—and parents—eager to return to play. Rest means rest. They have to limit any type of screen time. Brain rest for student athletes is pretty challenging because they want to get back on the field or back on the court.

Anyone can get a concussion. Concussions aren’t limited to school athletes. Adult athletes can get concussions too, as can anyone involved in a traffic crash or other type of injury that includes a blow to the head.

Suppose that down the road, your child is playing a sport. At some point there’s a head-to-head impact with another player or a head-to-ground impact and your child experiences a loss of consciousness, may have a headache, may be pulled out of the game and taken to an emergency room.

Many hospitals don’t screen for concussion. The diagnosis is usually based on human interaction: the history and physical exam of the patient, talking to the patient, and asking the correct questions.

What symptoms should you be looking for? Concussions can be hard to spot as they often have no visible signs, like cuts or bruises. Bottom Line: Teach your kids that if you hit your head, stop playing and tell a parent or coach, even if you feel fine. Here are some common symptoms of concussions to watch for:

  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling foggy or “not right”
  • Being bothered by light or noise
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