In recent years, sports-related concussions in children and teens have helped to raise public awareness of concussions and their long-term effects. As a result, concussions are now being reported and diagnosed more than they were in past years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2010 that there were 400,000 concussions and brain injuries per year among high school athletes. This increased awareness means that providers are more able to properly diagnose and treat concussions in kids.
Why Playing Sports Is Important for Kids
When your kids play sports, either on a team or individually, it’s incredibly good for their health and well-being. Sports are a powerful tool that break down barriers while also helping kids feel good about themselves, both physically and mentally.
Some of the benefits of sports for kids are:
• Getting recommended physical activity to help keep healthy
• Building confidence and self-esteem
• Motivation to do well in school / academically
• Helps with goal setting
• Teaches the value of practice
• Promotes lifelong health
But injuries while playing sports happen. That’s why parents, coaches and kids should keep aware of safety precautions, wear protective gear when necessary and feel comfortable having a conversation about injuries as soon as they occur.
When Concussions and Head Injuries Happen in Kids Sports
Concussions can be scary, no matter your child’s age. A concussion is a temporary loss of normal brain function caused by a head injury, usually from a blow or shaking of the head, neck or body. When this happens, the brain snaps forward, sideways and / or backward inside the skull. Oftentimes, this happens during a car accident, or when kids are playing sports or are on the playground. Concussions can affect how a child’s brain functions, their overall health, thinking ability, behavior, school performance and social interactions for quite some time. A concussion can’t always be recognized. Your child could have one without ever blacking out or showing typical symptoms.
However, it’s important for parents, coaches and kids to be able to spot the signs of a concussion, which include:
• Feeling dazed, dizzy, lightheaded or disoriented
• Memory loss and trouble recalling things that happened right before or after the injury
• Slurred speech or saying things that don’t make sense
• Nausea or vomiting
• Blurred vision and sensitivity to light
• Difficulty concentrating, thinking or making decisions
• Difficulty with coordination or balance
• Feeling anxious or irritable for no reason
• Feeling overly tired
Some children and teens think concussions aren’t serious or worry that if they report a concussion they will lose their position on the team or look weak. Remind them that it’s better to miss one game than the whole season. Also, keep in mind that some kids may be more prone to getting concussions, especially those who have had prior head injuries and concussions, children with learning differences, as well as those with mood disorders.
Preventing Brain Injury in Kids Sports
I discussed the development of the athlete’s brain for children and adolescents recently when I represented Nemours and the American College of Sports Medicine at the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics 2018 World Congress in Los Angeles. Over the past few years, publicity about brain injuries in sports has raised awareness and accountability in both the sports and medical communities. It’s important to note that the majority of concussions happen outside of sports. They can occur during recreational activities or even in your own home. The benefit of sports, even contact sports, outweigh the risks of getting a concussion. But we should continuously be in the mode of refining sports and protecting young athletes.
To help lessen children’s or teens’ chances of getting a concussion or other serious brain injury, here are some tips for both parents and coaches:
• Help create a culture of safety for the team.
• Work together to teach kids how to lessen the chances of getting a concussion.
• Emphasize the importance of reporting concussions right away
• Make sure kids follow the team’s rules for safety and the rules of the sport.
• Expect that your children practice good sportsmanship at all times.
• When appropriate for the sport, teach kids that they must wear a helmet to lower the chances of serious brain injury.
• Encourage all team members to speak up if they see concussion symptoms in teammates.
• Make sure kids who get a concussion are seen by a health provider. They will follow your child’s symptoms closely and supervise a gradual return to play when symptoms go away.
• Allow kids time to recover from concussions and give their brain a rest. This includes both thinking and physical activities.
Parents, coaches and providers need to continue the conversation surrounding brain injury and sports. Topics to consider are continually making contact sports safer, the rules of play and the age at which children play at certain levels of engagement.
Article written by Todd Maugans, MD, Division Chief, Division of Neurosurgery, Department of Surgery.