When your child suffers a blow to the head, whether it's during a sporting event, at school or at home, it's important to be on full alert — even if the child doesn't lose consciousness and appears to be OK at the time.
The truth is, you don't need to be knocked out cold to have a concussion, an injury caused by rattling of the brain. And because concussion symptoms don't always surface immediately, it's easy for parents — as well as coaches and teachers — to miss the signs. Or to brush off what you think is a minor head bump.
But according to Kathy Weber, MD, MS, a sports medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center and part of the team at the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush, ignoring any head injury can have serious, long-term consequences.
What to watch for
Concussion symptoms can range from mild to severe, and may appear hours or even days after the head injury. These are some of the key signs for adults to watch for:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sleeping more or less than usual, or difficulty falling asleep
- Loss of consciousness
- Problems concentrating or focusing
- Post-concussive syndrome (prolonged symptoms that last weeks or months)
If you notice any of these symptoms, call the child's pediatrician. Seek medical attention right away if you notice any of these danger signs after a head injury.
Who’s at risk?
Most concussions occur in contact sports such as football, soccer, lacrosse and basketball, although any trauma to the head can result in concussion. And while people of all ages suffer concussions, younger athletes appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of head injuries than older athletes.
Weber says athletes who return to their sport while still experiencing symptoms are at highest risk for serious long-term problems. This includes second-impact syndrome, when an athlete who has not recovered from a first concussion gets hit again.
"Second-impact syndrome is often fatal, and multiple traumatic brain injuries could increase the risk of depression, cognitive delay and dementia. So it's critical to get prompt, proper diagnosis and management of concussion before getting back in the game," says Weber.
It's critical to get prompt, proper diagnosis and management of concussion before getting back in the game.
Caring for concussion
Assessment of a blow to the head depends on the severity of the injury and the symptoms. Specialists at the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic perform comprehensive evaluations, which may include physical exams, neurocognitive and balance testing, and asking patients to complete simple memory and concentration tasks, such as repeating numbers backward.
Like a sprained ankle, an injured brain needs rest. So treatment for a concussion will involve limiting brain stimulation and physical activity to prevent re-injury. Kids may be restricted from going to school or participating in sports for days or weeks. Even seemingly harmless activities like reading, watching TV or playing video games may be forbidden.
While kids will protest — especially about not having any screen time — this strategy is crucial for recovery.
"I often describe a concussion as not an event, but a process," Weber said. "During this process, the brain is basically resetting itself — it's getting back to its normal state of being. That's why it's so important during that time to fully rest and give your brain that time to heal."