Answering your sports-related concussion questions
10/28/2019 by Dr. Luke Radel
Summer is over and school is back in session. For many kids and teens, the start of school also means the start of Fall sports. Unfortunately, some kids experience injuries during their sports. One injury in particular that gets a lot of attention is a sports-related concussion. Kids and parents get information about concussions from a variety of sources; this information leads to a lot of questions and concerns. I'd like to address some of the common questions and concerns I hear from patients and their families in regard to concussions.
What exactly is a concussion?
A concussion is a brain injury that causes a temporary disruption in brain function. This injury is caused by a traumatic blow to the head or body that results in rapid rotation of the brain inside the skull, which then causes a variety of signs and symptoms.
How do I know if my kid has suffered a concussion?
Because a concussion is not a structural brain injury that we can see on traditional CT or MRI, we rely on recognizing a number of signs and symptoms a person may have. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering
- Light or noise sensitivity
- Feeling sluggish or in a fog
- Mood concerns
- Sleep difficulties
If you or your child's coach suspects that your child has a concussion, they should be removed from the sport or activity immediately. Your child should be evaluated promptly by a medical provider. Or they may need to go to the Emergency Department if they have:
- Severe headache, especially if it's getting worse
- Excessive sleepiness or difficulty arousing
- Persistent vomiting
- Numbness, tingling or weakness in an arm or leg
- Vision loss
- Slurred speech
How do you treat a concussion?
Your medical provider will give you an individualized care plan unique to your child. The initial treatment for a concussion is a period of rest for the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. The child or teen should avoid any activities that may make symptoms worse, such as excessive screen time, loud environments or bright lights.
After the initial period of rest your provider will recommend that your child gradually gets back to doing more activity, such as school or other everyday activities. Your child may receive some initial academic accommodations during recovery, such as going to half school days, frequent breaks, extended time on assignments and homework, and postponing tests.
Once the child is symptom-free, they may start a return-to-play protocol that focuses on gradually increasing physical activity. This gradual method helps ensure they're able to safely return to activities without making symptoms worse. The child shouldn't return to their sport until cleared by a medical provider.
While recovering from a concussion, it's important to avoid activities that place your child at risk for sustaining a repeat concussion. Throughout their recover, it's important to get restorative nighttime sleep, stay well hydrated, and eat healthy foods that fuel the body and help it heal.
Is there anything we can do to prevent future concussions?
It can be difficult to prevent concussions altogether, especially in contact sports, but there are some strategies for lowering risk of sustaining a concussion:
- Focusing on good core and neck strengthening.
- Using proper technique and following the rules of the sport.
- Educating coaches and parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of concussion to ensure that our kids get the appropriate care that they need.
- When in doubt, sit the kids out!
Certain team and youth organizations also may implement injury prevention strategies, such as rule changes that limit unnecessary or excessive contact. It's important that coaches and officials properly coach and enforce these rules.
Are there long-term consequences to getting a concussion?
It's difficult to know the exact relationship between concussions and long-term neurologic health; it's an active area of debate and research. There isn't any current evidence that says a concussion will lead to long-term neurologic disease or impairment. Many people fear concussions will lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a very rare degenerative disorder diagnosed only by an autopsy after death.
CTE is a result of previous head traumas, but we don't know to what extent other risk factors may have contributed to developing this disease, such as genetics, lifestyle choices and other health problems. Not all people that experienced concussions in their lifetime go on to develop CTE.
At this point the most common-sense recommendation would be to reduce the amount of unnecessary head trauma your child experiences. And if they do have a head injury, it's important that it's recognized and treated appropriately by a medical provider.
Dr. Luke Radel practices in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). He is board-certified in both pediatrics and sports medicine. Dr. Radel serves as the volunteer team physician for the John Marshall High School football team and has also worked with the Rochester Grizzlies and Austin Bruins hockey teams. He has experience treating youth, collegiate and professional athletes.