Know the signs of a concussion and how to prevent long-term damage
You’re on your feet shaking a foam finger high in the air to the beat of the fight song. You know you’ll have a sore throat tomorrow from all the cheering, but this is your kid’s team, and this is one exciting game. Then, suddenly, the crowd falls silent. The athletes stop playing. The coach and trainer race to help your child off the field. Your heart stops.
When your child suffers a head injury, what do you do? Injuries, including concussions, are part of sports at every level of play. But to prevent long-term damage, it’s important to know the signs of a concussion and what steps to take next.
Common Causes of Concussion
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury usually caused by a blow to the head or body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 500,000 emergency room visits for traumatic brain injuries (TBI) each year are made by children under the age of 14. And each year, emergency rooms nationwide treat nearly 175,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries among children under the age of 19. Accidents or sports are typically to blame. The top five causes were bicycling, football, playground activities (especially in younger kids), basketball and soccer.
“Concussion in recreational sports is not new,” says Dr. Jared Kam, sports medicine and family physician at Bingham Memorial’s Orthopedic Institute. “We are recognizing them better and coaches and parents know more about them, but we still have a long way to go.”
What to Look For
A concussion is a functional injury to the brain, and can occur with blows to the head or even to other parts of the body. Concussions were traditionally thought to be associated with loss of consciousness. We are finding this happens in less than 10 percent of sports-related concussions, says Dr. Kam.
Signs of a concussion fall into three categories:
- Cognitive: Children might have trouble concentrating, or feel confused, disoriented, or have memory loss.
- Behavioral: They may feel emotional than usual, or have changes in their sleep habits.
- Physical: Kids can experience headaches, dizziness or nausea, or have difficulty with balance or coordination.
It’s essential for coaches and trainers to recognize these symptoms because having a true concussion changes the way a child recovers.
“This is a very important point,” says Dr. Kam. “If there’s a suspected concussion, they’re out for the day, and they don’t get to come back until they’ve been cleared by someone trained in concussion management.”
Next, it’s important to follow up with your child’s doctor, athletic trainer, or other professional to help determine when it’s safe to go back to play. “The brain is vulnerable until the concussion heals,” Dr. Kam adds. A second blow to the head before a concussion heals can cause serious and lasting damage or even death, an injury we call Second Impact Syndrome.
For moms and dads concerned about the lifelong neurological impact of contact sports, the good news is that as long as you take the right steps after a brain injury, there’s little to worry about.
So how many concussions is too many? While the answer to that question is very individualized and depends on a lot of different variables there are some warning signs.
One significant factor is the length of time between concussions.
“Someone having three concussions in six months is different than someone having three concussions in a six-year period,” Dr. Kam explains.
Other worrisome findings are when concussions last longer and occur with much less impact.
While experts continue to study concussions, there is no set number to determine future eligibility to play. This decision should always be made with your concussion management professional.
What to Do
Idaho is one of the 49 states as well as the District of Columbia that have laws that require coaches to take athletes out of the game after a concussion. The laws also affirm that athletes can’t play until they’ve been cleared by a medical professional.
How long that takes depends on the individual situation, explains Dr. Kam. “Most concussions will resolve in 7 to 10 days,” he explains. “Some take longer.”
Once the symptoms of concussion have gone away, the athlete can begin to slowly return to activity, he adds. If symptoms return with increasing exercise, the athlete’s brain has not totally recovered, Dr. Kam says. They need more time. This whole process should be guided by a medical professional trained in managing concussions. When there are no symptoms at rest or with exertion the medical professional can evaluate if is safe to return to competition.
“It’s important,” Dr. Kam adds, “for coaches, trainers, and parents to be educated about concussions and to take advantage of free resources, such as the CDCs Heads Up program.”
“In youth sports, there aren’t always trained medical professionals on the field,” he says. “I don’t expect (coaches and parents) to make a diagnosis, but they should be familiar with concussion symptoms and know when to hold a kid out.”
A crucial point to this interaction is knowing that young athletes may not always be honest about their symptoms. This can prolong recovery and lead to more dangerous brain injuries like second impact syndrome.
Kids need to be truthful with their parents and their coaches about concussion symptoms. Teams should work closely with an athletic trainer or local medical professional in adopting a concussion policy.
Sports injuries, including concussions, are an inevitable part of an active lifestyle—an integral component of physical and social development of today’s growing athletes. The benefits of being active in sports far outweigh the potential for serious injury.
Head for the ER?
If your child suffers a concussion and symptoms improve within 45 minutes, there’s no need to rush to the hospital. But if you observe any of the following, get moving.
- He or she was unconscious for more than 10 to 15 seconds.
- There’s physical evidence of a neurological deficit (such as weakness on one side of the body).
- Headache is worsening.
- Your child gets more tired or less responsive.
- Repeated vomiting
- Confusion persists.
- Pupils of the eyes are not equal in size; eye movements are unusual.
And remember, even if your child’s symptoms are minor, it’s still important to schedule a doctor’s appointment. “Everyone who has a concussion should be evaluated by a professional,” says Dr. Kam.
We Make Getting Treated Easy!
Bingham Memorial’s Orthopedic Institute offers FREE orthopedic clinics for all student athletes. The Orthopedic Institute’s free Bumps and Bruises Clinic is the perfect opportunity to help keep your athlete in the game. The clinic offers free evaluations (x-rays are included!) and are held every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. from August 20 through October 29.
Some of the region’s most experienced orthopedic and sports medicine specialists will be on hand every Saturday morning to treat any student athlete who might be suffering from a sports-related injury. Our sports medicine experts would rather see and treat all injuries for free than allow serious complications to arise, which could affect an athlete’s long-term performance. Student athletes can be seen in Idaho Falls, Blackfoot, and Pocatello.
Students must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. No appointment is necessary. For more information, please call (208) 239-8000.