Enrolling a child in a sport program at school or in the community can be a very rewarding experience for any parent. However with the risk of concussion very much in the news these days, it is advisable for parents to be aware of the risk of suffering a concussion while playing sports, how it might be prevented, and what to do if your child does suffer a concussion.
A concussion is a disturbance in brain function that occurs following either a blow to the head or as a result of the violent shaking of the head. The brain is made of soft tissue and is cushioned by the spinal fluid. It is encased in the hard, protective skull. The brain can move around inside the skull and even bang against it. If the brain bangs against the skull — for example, due to a fall or a whiplash-type of injury — blood vessels can be torn and the nerves inside the brain can be injured. These injuries can cause a concussion.
Concussions can have a lasting effect on cognition (e.g. functions of the brain involving thinking, concentrating, learning, and reasoning), as well as physical, and emotional effects, such as depression.
The top three sports that cause head injuries for boys are soccer, hockey and football; whereas for girls they are soccer, gymnastics and dance (according to a study on Canadian youth sports).
Since many children’s sports leagues are run by parents and volunteers and are not likely to be staffed with healthcare professionals with expertise in recognizing and treating concussions, parents need to be especially vigilant to the signs and symptoms of concussions.
Recognizing a concussion
Many people relate concussions with loss of consciousness. It is very important for parents to understand that someone with a concussion may be knocked unconscious, but this doesn’t happen in every case. In fact, a brief loss of consciousness or “blacking out” doesn’t mean a concussion is any more or less serious than one where a person didn’t black out. In fact, studies reveal that fewer than 10% of sport related concussions involve a loss of consciousness.
Following a sports injury or even after a game or practice in which an injury wasn’t witnessed, parents should be on the lookout for these symptoms in their children:
- They appear to be dazed or stunned
- They’re confused about directions given
- They forget plays
- They’re unsure of game, score, or opponent
- They move clumsily
- They answer questions slowly
- They lose consciousness (even temporarily)
- They show behaviour or personality change
- They forget events prior to hit (retrograde amnesia)
- They forget events after hit (anterograde amnesia).
If any of these symptoms are apparent, parents should go to the nearest emergency room and report the injury sustained and symptoms witnessed as soon as possible.
Prevention is ideal; rest and treatment are key
When it comes to concussions, prevention is the goal. Experts advise measures to implement proper prevention which include wearing appropriate equipment and teaching the children what not to do (e.g. not to tackle, not to “head” the soccer ball and not to hit opponents are examples). Proper education on what not to do can dramatically reduce the number of concussions in young players.
It is also very important to keep in mind that once a concussion is sustained, a child is 2 to 5 times more likely to sustain another one, and therefore concussed youth athletes should be placed on immediate physical and mental rest. That means avoiding physical exercise, computer use, smart phone use, watching television and social outings. Youth who do not rest immediately tend to have much longer recovery periods. Because of these factors and the fact that a youth athlete’s brain is still developing and growing, some experts suggest that youth remain out of sports for three weeks or more after they are symptom free, especially if they have a history of prior concussions.
Concussions are very serious injuries that can become even more serious if kids don’t get the time and rest needed to heal them completely. Taking the appropriate safety precautions can help prevent concussions, and following the doctor’s advice can help minimize their affects if they do happen.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Mosaic newsletter.