Heads Up: What You Need to Know About Concussions and Young Athletes

To play or not to play? Many parents find themselves weighing pros and cons when each new sports season rolls around. Physical activity improves fitness, helps build strong muscles and bones and boosts academic performance in some areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Unfortunately, sports and recreational activities also send hundreds of thousands of kids to the emergency room with concussions every year.

young girl holding head in doctor's office

How can parents help keep their children safe while exposing them to the benefits of playing sports? The first step to helping lower the risk is to use proper equipment and headgear. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons recommends helmets for football, hockey, skiing, wrestling, horseback riding, skateboarding, cycling and baseball and softball (when at bat). Many safety experts also suggest headgear for soccer, martial arts and lacrosse.

Helmets are not interchangeable. Pick one specific to the sport it will be worn for – and make sure it fits properly. The fit should be snug, and the child should never wear anything under the helmet. It’s also important to replace a helmet after its first impact. One hit can damage cushioning and reduce protection.

If a child does get hit in the head – whether they are wearing or not wearing a helmet -- it may not be obvious they have sustained a concussion. Some symptoms may not be evident until later in the day or even a week or two later. Signs of a concussion usually fall into four categories:

  • Physical: Signs include nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, problems with balance, sensitivity to light and sound, ringing ears and blurred or double vision. Don’t assume a concussion involves passing out. That’s often not the case.
  • Cognitive: Slurred or jumbled speech, a vacant stare, loss of concentration, confusion and “just not feeling right” are all warning signs of a concussion.
  • Emotional: Problems to look for are moodiness, anxiety, sadness and irritability.
  • Sleep: Slumber patterns may be disrupted when a child has a concussion. They may sleep more or less than usual or have problems falling asleep and waking up.

Consult a health care professional if any of these symptoms show up after a head injury.

Our brains need physical and mental rest to heal after a concussion, so make sure teachers and coaches are aware of the situation. A new set of comprehensive CDC guidelines for concussions in children covers diagnosis and prognosis, as well as management and treatment. No such standards were previously in place. In its guidelines, the CDC advises doctors to restrict their patients’ physical and mental activity for the first several days following a blow to the head. The child should gradually return to normal activity as symptoms allow, the guidelines say.

Too often, children don’t wait long enough. In a study of 159 patients assessed for a sport-related concussion, 44 percent returned to playing sports too soon, and 45 percent returned to school too soon. Consider having your doctor write a note to give teachers and coaches, if necessary.

The bottom line: sports are a great source of physical activity for kids. Injuries can potentially be avoided with the right protective gear. When a child does get hurt, recognize the symptoms, but take heart in the knowledge that 70 to 80 percent of children with a concussion don’t show significant problems after one to three months. Then follow the advice of your doctor.