5 Things You Should Know About Sports & Concussions

It used to be called “getting your bell rung,” and when it happened, athletes of all ages were encouraged to just “shake it off.” Today, we understand that concussions can be serious, but do you know what a concussion looks like? Do you know what to do if your young athlete suffers one?

“Young children, teenagers and young adults are particularly at risk because their brains are still developing,” says Julie Gilchrist, M.D., a pediatrician and medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one of the experts featured on Be Smart. Be Well. Sports and Concussions.

Here are five things you should know about concussions to help keep young athletes healthy and safe.

1. Know … the facts

A concussion is not just a bump on the head and a bad headache; it’s a kind of traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a concussion can occur from a fall or blow to the head or body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth. This jostling can damage the brain.

Each year, U.S. emergency departments treat over 175,000 children and teens for sports-related TBIs, including concussions — and they’re not all due to football. The activities that cause the greatest number of TBI-related emergency department visits include football, bicycling, basketball and soccer. Plus, playground injuries are one of the leading causes of recreation-related TBIs in children 9 and under. So no matter what sport or recreation activity your child is involved in, you should be on the alert for concussions.

2. Know … the symptoms

A young athlete doesn’t need to lose consciousness to have a concussion. Because signs of a concussion can be subtle, you might miss them if you’re not looking for them. Also, children and adolescents may not report their symtoms, so be alert to new symptoms or changes in behavior. Some symptoms show up right away, some might not show up for a few days.

Here are some more subtle signs a young athlete may have a concussion:

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Moves clumsily
  • Has a headache
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Shows behavior, mood or personality changes
  • Has sensitivity to light or noise
  • Experiences ringing in the ears
  • Can’t recall events just prior or after the hit or fall
  • Has trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Sleeps more or less than normal

“I was very emotional, and I had no control over that. Then I had a hard time focusing in school,” says Amy, who was injured in a cheerleading accident. She shares her story in a video on Be Smart. Be Well. Sports and Concussions.

3. Know … when to contact a healthcare provider

You can’t see a concussion, so any time a concussion is suspected, the athlete should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

Some warning signs that warrant immediate medical help include:

  • Headache that does not go away, is severe or gets worse
  • Changes in mental function or behavior
  • Weakness and/or numbness of any part of the body
  • Poor coordination, restlessness or agitation
  • Vomiting or stiff neck
  • Slurred speech
  • Extreme drowsiness, confusion or decreased alertness
  • Unequal pupils or other visual changes
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Also keep in mind that head injuries may be accompanied by injuries to other parts of the body, such as the neck or spine.

4. Know … how long to keep kids out of the game

Research shows that young athletes recover from concussions slower than adults. A player who returns to the game while still suffering concussion symptoms is at risk for serious, permanent brain damage. That is why it’s so important for young athletes to be symptom-free and cleared by a healthcare provider before restarting any activity.

“A second injury, even less severe than the first injury, can cause much more damage,” says Dr. Young.

Rest can help the brain heal after a concussion. Check with your physician for specific recommendations related to activity limitations following a concussion and how and when to return to regular activities. They may recommend time away from practice, games and exercise. Your child may need to ease back into school and might need extra time with tests and schoolwork. Following a concussion, young athletes may also need to ease back into sports gradually, working up to full speed and full contact.

5. Know … how to lower risk of a concussion

There is no sure-fire way to prevent a concussion. But there are steps you can take to lower your young athlete’s risk for one.

  • Properly fitted bicycle helmets should be worn for all bicycling activities.
  • Athletes should wear appropriate and properly fitted helmets and gear for contact sports, including football and hockey.
  • Make sure you and your child are familiar with all team and league concussion and safe-play policies.
  • Educate yourself and your child about concussion symptoms.
  • Encourage your child to report all episodes of head trauma and injury immediately. Let them know it’s better to sit out a short while recovering than risk missing the entire season — or worse — because of an early return.
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