If you were ever a student athlete, you might know the feeling: ducking between players, feeling the wind on your face as you bounded victoriously toward the goal. The field was your battleground. Nothing could beat you — nothing could stop the adrenaline from coursing through your veins. Until —
Bam. The other player came out of nowhere. Your heads smacked together and an explosion of lights flashed in your vision. You stumbled, fell, and felt the dull throb of a bruise start in your head. Distantly, someone blew a whistle, and soon you were escorted off the field where someone — a doctor, coach, or parent — was waiting to attend to you.
This is the experience of millions of children and teenagers involved in sports and other recreational activities each year. Perhaps when it happened to you, you shook it off and went about life as usual. Recent research into the effects of traumatic brain injuries on children’s brains has shown that “shaking it off” is an ineffective — and sometimes even dangerous — response to head injuries.
A Concussion Is a Brain Injury.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by impact to the head or rapid jostling of the head and brain. As a result of the damage to cells, your brain tissue will change shape.
Your brain regulates every other organ in your body. It controls how you sleep, how you digest food, and how you react to the world around you. Concussions make it difficult for brain cells to communicate in the same way. That’s why concussion patients experience issues relating to vision, balance, cognition, sleep, and emotion regulation — and why it’s important to take concussions seriously.
Not all bumps to the head are as serious as a concussion, but it can be difficult to diagnose a concussion as opposed to something less severe. That’s because a concussion won’t appear on an x–ray, CT, or MRI scan. If you or your child are concussed, you’ll want to play it safe for a few weeks until your brain can heal.
Head Injuries Require an Immediate Response.
Three out of four families with school–aged children involve their kids in sports.
Up to 3.8 million sports– and recreation–related concussions occur each year.
Six percent of sports–related emergency room visits for children and teens involve a concussion.
Ninety percent of head injury fatalities occur in children and teenagers.
High school football players are three times more likely to sustain a catastrophic head injury than college football players.
Immediately after an athlete hits their head, coaches, parents, and physicians look for signs of a concussion. These signs could include:
Loss of consciousness,
Memory problems or confusion,
Inappropriate crying or laughter, or
Athletes of all levels can use an app to assess whether their symptoms are those of a concussion or not.
Once a student athlete has been diagnosed with a concussion, they must stop playing for the day. Doctors will prescribe rest and bar the player from physical exertion or electronics. The athlete might also use Tylenol to treat their ensuing headache; other headache medication is less effective.
The brain will need time to heal, so doctors recommend keeping athletes out of the game until they show no symptoms. Student athletes can also receive a 504 Plan, or a temporary modification of school work, to allow their brains more time to rest. Recovering from a concussion typically lasts 7–10 days, though side effects of a concussion can last weeks or months. Post–concussive syndrome (PCS) is more likely to occur when athletes don’t take the time to heal. Symptoms of PCS include memory and concentration problems, mood swings, personality changes, headache, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, and excessive drowsiness. Students with multiple concussions in their medical history are more likely to experience visual processing difficulties and lower grade–point averages.
Brain Injuries Can Have Lifelong Effects.
It’s important to prevent further injury after sustaining a concussion. No concussion is minor, and having more than one concussion in a short period of time can be disabling or deadly. This is called second–impact syndrome (SIS), and it’s characterized by acute swelling of brain tissue as a result of a second concussion before the previous one heals. SIS is most common in child and teen athletes, possibly because children and teenagers are less likely to report an injury that could prevent them from playing.
In the past decade, we’ve seen more and more concerns about the long–term effects of concussions and other brain injuries on athletes. In 2017, a study found that more than half of deceased football players whose brains were examined had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). C.T.E. is a degenerative disease connected to repeated head injuries, and its symptoms include memory loss, impulsive behavior, impaired judgment, aggression or depression, balance difficulties, and gradual onset of dementia.
Concussions Can Be Prevented.
It is possible to prevent head injuries by taking safety precautions.
Wear a helmet that fits and that’s been approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) when riding bikes, scooters, skateboards, horses, or recreational vehicles; playing baseball, softball, football, hockey, or soccer; and wrestling, pole-vaulting, skiing, or doing martial arts. Check out 4 Things to Know about Bicycle Helmets for more tips on choosing the right helmet.
Follow rules at pools and water parks, including “do not dive” warnings.
Follow traffic signals when walking, biking, or skating. Wear a seatbelt in the car.
Don’t play sports with obscured vision or when you are ill or tired.
Supervise young children when they’re playing.
Remove hazards by storing firearms appropriately; clearing frequently–walked pathways in your home of loose rugs, cords, and toys; and driving responsibly. It could be useful to have a baseline test that gauges your performance before an injury and makes diagnosing a concussion much easier. Educate yourself and your children on how to respond to potential concussions.
When in Doubt, Pull Them Out.
Gone are the days when “shaking it off” is a legitimate response to a head injury. Whether you your or kids play for the fun or for the competition, you should respond to potential concussions by removing the injured player from the field. Each player’s health and safety is more important than the outcome of that game.
NJM is here for all your safety needs. Check out our Safety Center for tips on keeping yourself safe at home and on the road.