The subject of concussion is on many minds — from soccer moms carting their kids to practice to coaches on the sidelines of NFL games. The topic was even featured in a recent blockbuster movie, aptly named "Concussion." With the seriousness and potential long-term consequences of this type of head injury, it's no surprise that concussions are making headlines.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head, or by a hit to the body strong enough to cause the head to jerk rapidly back and forth. The brain bounces or twists within the skull and can cause chemical changes to the brain and damage to brain cells. A concussion can affect cognitive function, motor function, senses and emotions.
Experts — and recently NFL executives — have acknowledged that athletes playing a contact sport like football are at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a devastating progressive brain disease associated with memory loss, impaired cognition and behavioral issues including aggression, depression and problems with impulse control.
While anyone can get a concussion, children and teens that play sports are especially at risk. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 71 percent of emergency department visits for concussions occurring during sports and recreation are among kids ages 10 to 19.
Dr. Benjamin Saben, a board-certified family medicine doctor who also specializes in sports medicine at Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says there's no great evidence that anything can prevent a concussion except avoidance of concussion-inducing situations.
"Even specialized helmets that have been advertised to prevent or reduce concussions have not conclusively been shown in medical studies to do so," says Dr. Saben.
Know the risks — and talk about them
Experts do recommend that open communication between parents, athletes and their coaches about sports safety and injury risks can lower the chances of concussion. Young athletes can lower their risk by discussing the importance of reporting possible concussions in themselves or their teammates, practicing good sportsmanship, and following all rules of play.
It is also extremely important that athletes and those on the sidelines know the signs and symptoms of concussion may include:
- Appearing dazed or stunned
- Moving slowly or clumsily
- Speaking in a slow or slurred manner
- Loss of consciousness
- Mood, behavior or personality changes
- Sensitivity to light and sound
People who have experienced a concussion also have shared that they felt head pressure or pain, nausea, dizziness and confusion.
Giving brains the time to heal
While most young athletes can fully recover from a concussion, it is very important that they follow the CDC's recommended guidelines for returning to school and sports. A brain must be given adequate time to heal, and for some, this means a return to regular activities might be a gradual process over several days, weeks and even months.
In general, young people must stop all activity if a concussion is suspected and they should see a health care professional immediately. Recovery begins in the first three to five days when the injured must stay at home to rest, sleep, drink plenty of fluids and avoid "screen time."
Once they start to show some improvement, young athletes can gradually progress to light physical and mental activity, a return to school and a return to sports and activities upon receiving medical clearance. Parents, the athlete and others around them should watch for continued or returning signs of the concussion, such as headache, irritability or tiredness, and the injured must continue to rest until all symptoms subside.
"Once someone has had a concussion, they are at greater risk for a repeat concussion as the brain is healing," says Dr. Saben. "That's why it's especially important for developing brains to rest and make a full recovery."
For more information on the CDC's "Heads Up" program, developed to educate parents, coaches and athletes and to help protect children and teens from concussions and other traumatic brain injuries, visit www.cdc.gov/headsup.