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