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Collision on Ice

Protect your brain from sports-related concussion

Hockey kid

As the parents of ice hockey players, Ted and Valerie Devine are well-versed not only in the art of back checks and power plays, but also in the dangers of this highly physical winter sport. So when their son Jack, age 8, slammed his head into a rink wall and skated away seemingly unscathed, they went on alert.

That's because they knew what many don’t: You don't need to be knocked out cold to have a concussion — an injury caused by rattling of the brain.

Delayed symptoms, immediate response

The Devines also knew coaches and parents often miss concussion symptoms (e.g., dizziness, headache or nausea), which don’t always surface immediately. Jack, for example, felt fine at the rink. "It wasn't until I got home that my head really began to hurt," he says.

Concerned, the Devines sought advice from other hockey parents, who connected them with Jeffrey Mjaanes, MD, a pediatric sports medicine specialist with the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush.

Concussions can have devastating consequences, Mjaanes says. Postconcussive syndrome often leads to chronic headaches, problems in school and depression. Second-impact syndrome, when an athlete who has not recovered from a first concussion gets hit again, is often fatal.

"For the best possible outcome, it was important for Jack to see a doctor right away," Mjaanes says.

Assessment of a blow to the head depends on the severity of the injury and the symptoms. "Jack's delayed headache definitely troubled me," Mjaanes says. And so the specialist performed a physical exam and asked Jack to complete simple memory and concentration tasks, such as repeating numbers backward.

Unsure if Jack's slow responses were due to a brain injury or the boy's age, Mjaanes opted to play it safe and treat Jack's injury as a concussion. It's a good thing he did: At his next appointment, Jack answered the same questions without hesitation. This confirmed that Jack had suffered a brain injury and was recovering.

Brain at rest

Jack’s treatment? Like a sprained ankle, an injured brain needs rest. That means limiting brain stimulation and physical activity to avoid reinjury.

For two weeks last winter, Jack wasn't allowed to read, participate in sports or go to school. Not really a hardship for an 8-year-old if he can watch television or play video games. But Mjaanes forbade those as well. "I was so bored," Jack recalls.

While challenging, this strategy — which was backed by Jack's school, thanks to Mjaanes' recommendations — gave Jack's brain time to heal.

The Devines appreciated the precautions Mjaanes prescribed for Jack and, three months later, for their 14-year-old daughter, Taylor, who also sustained a concussion from a collision on the ice.

"My kids needed total rest to recover," Valerie Devine says. "As their advocate, Dr. Mjaanes helped make that happen."

Related: Watch a video in which Jeffrey Mjaanes, MD, talks about diagnosing and treating concussion in kids.

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