You may think that concussions only happen to football players. But that’s not the case. Concussions can happen for all sorts of reasons, including a bike crash, a fall on the playground, or, yes, while playing sports. Another myth: You don’t have to lose consciousness to experience a concussion. You don’t even have to get hit in the head. A blow to the body that causes the head to move back and forth can cause a concussion as well.
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Traumatic brain injury sounds scary—and concussions can be quite serious. But the effects are usually temporary and not life threatening. They can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance, and coordination.
It’s important to note that once your child has experienced a concussion, the risk of having another goes up. And a second concussion can be more severe. Knowing what to look for after a blow to the head is important so you can take steps to prevent more serious damage in the future.
Path to improved health
A concussion is not like a cut or bruise you can see on the outside. It can be easy to miss, particularly early on when there may be no outward signs. Concussion symptoms can show up a few days to a few weeks after an injury. If you think your child may have suffered a concussion, be on the lookout for the following in him or her:
- Dazed or stunned appearance.
- Confusion about what’s going on.
- Forgetting instructions.
- Clumsy movement.
- Answering questions slowly.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Mood swings or behavior changes.
Additionally, if your child is old enough, they might tell you they’re experiencing:
- Headache or feeling pressure in the head.
- Problems concentrating.
- Confusion or memory problems.
- Balance problems or dizziness.
- Fuzzy or blurry vision.
- Sensitivity to light or noise.
- Feeling sluggish, hazy, groggy, or just plain “off.”
- Feeling irritable, nervous, or anxious.
- Sleep changes.
If your child has any of the above symptoms, see their doctor right away. The doctor will ask about the injury and do a physical examination. He or she may test your child’s strength, senses, balances, reflexes, and memory. Depending on what they find, they may order medical tests, such as a CT scan.
If your child’s concussion is mild, rest may be the only treatment. That means keeping to a regular schedule, no late nights, and no sleepovers. Rest also involves a mental time out. No using a computer, cell phone, or other electronic devices. Schoolwork, homework, and even reading and watching television should be stopped or limited, depending on the doctor’s directions.
Don’t give your child any medicines unless your doctor has approved them. Your doctor will monitor your child and let you know exactly when he or she can return to school and to normal activities. It is no longer necessary for you to wake your child throughout the night after a head injury.
In rare cases, a dangerous blood clot may form on the brain. This increases pressure in the area against the skull. This can be life threatening and requires immediate treatment. Call 911 or take him or her to the emergency room right away if your child shows any of the following signs:
- Looks very drowsy or can’t wake up.
- One pupil is larger than the other.
- Has convulsions or seizures.
- Can’t recognize people or places.
- Is getting more and more confused, restless, or agitated.
- Has unusual behavior.
- Has slurred speech.
- Complains of a headache that doesn’t go away or gets worse.
- Loses consciousness, even briefly.
- Will not stop crying and cannot be consoled.
- Will not eat (or nurse, with babies).
Things to consider
If your child is hurt during a sports game, do not allow them to continue playing if you suspect they might have a concussion. Children who return to the game before the brain is fully healed risk a greater chance of having a second—and worse—concussion. Repeated concussions may have serious long-term problems, including difficulty with concentration, memory, headache, and even permanent brain damage. Always wait until a healthcare professional says it’s okay for your child to return to the game.
Prevention is key. When playing sports, safety should always be the No. 1 priority. Tell your child’s coach about a previous concussion. Make sure your child follows all the safety rules of the game. Children must wear the proper protective gear, including helmets that fit properly and are well maintained at all times when playing sports or riding bikes, skateboards, etc. Keep in mind, however, that there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet. Children should always take care not to get hit—and not to hit others—in the head.
If you have younger children, childproof your home. Babies will reach for whatever they can to pull themselves up, which can result in falls and head injuries. Use stair gates at the top and bottom of every staircase. Create a safe space for your baby to play, and never leave him or her unattended. Always use car seats, booster seats, and seatbelts properly. At the playground, make sure there’s soft material like mulch or sand under swing and play sets (not grass or dirt).
Questions to ask your doctor
- Will my child need to take any special precautions when playing sports in the future?
- Should my child be taking any medications?
- When will my child be able to resume his normal activities?
- Should I wake my child up every hour tonight?
- What signs should I be looking for to warrant a trip to the emergency room?
- This is my child’s second concussion. Should he stop playing sports altogether?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.