By Adam Breiner
It’s common for kids to sustain head injuries due to sports accidents, everyday play, falls, and other mishaps. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall number of children and teens diagnosed with concussions or traumatic brain injury (TBI) is on the rise. It’s important for parents to understand that concussions are much more serious than “just” a knock on the head. They can negatively affect children for the rest of their lives.
Here are six things parents, teachers, and coaches need to know about concussions so that they can protect the young people in their care.
Concussions and TBI do real damage to the brain. Concussions and TBI occur when the brain suddenly shifts within the skull—usually as the result of a sudden blow, jolt, or change of direction (e.g., whiplash). A football tackle, being hit with a baseball or softball, heading a soccer ball, falling off a bike, and being in an automobile accident are just a few of the scenarios that can result in TBI.
Damage can have long-term effects. Because children’s brains are still growing, they are especially vulnerable to concussions. The damage caused by TBI can impair normal development. Potential long-term effects of childhood concussions include abnormal brain activity that lasts for years, memory problems, attention deficits, difficulty handling anger, language impairment, personality changes, difficulty making decisions, “foggy” thinking, and more.
Multiple concussions are especially dangerous. If a child is concussed a second time while a previous brain injury is still healing, she or he may experience more serious symptoms, a longer recovery time, and even permanent cognitive and neurological damage. Since TBI is not a visible injury, multiple concussions are a major concern—especially for young athletes.
The signs of concussion can range from mild to severe. The immediate effects of a concussion can be subtle or very noticeable. Some of the most common post-concussive symptoms include headache, visual blurring, light sensitivity, difficulty concentrating, dizziness and balance problems, nausea, memory dysfunction, and fatigue. When in doubt—whether you notice symptoms or not—it’s always smart to get your child checked out after a blow to the head.
The first and best line of defense is prevention. No, you can’t raise your child in a bubble, but you can take precautions to lower his or her risk of becoming concussed. If your child participates in an activity where falls or blows to the head are a possibility, make sure he or she wears a helmet. (Go to cdc.gov/headsup/helmets for helmet use.)
If you see unsafe behaviors happening in practices or games, speak up. Remove your child from the team if changes aren’t made.
The standard wait-and-rest advice may not be good enough. If your child suffers from a concussion (or one is suspected), you’ll most likely be advised to make sure that she or he rests physically and mentally for a few days. But don’t stop there. The biggest mistake most parents and coaches make is assuming that everything is okay when a youngster appears to have returned to normal after a few days of downtime. Damage may be present that you can’t see—and the only way to ascertain whether healing is complete is via functional brain imaging and other tests.
The more science uncovers about the brain, the better we’re able to diagnose concussions and prevent negative long-term effects. Each brain’s cognitive abilities and electrical function is unique—meaning that healing will look different for each person. For this reason, it’s highly recommended that children and teens—especially athletes—get baseline tests, including neurocognitive testing and an EEG, before the athletic season begins. Having this baseline data on hand helps doctors evaluate the severity of an injury.
Brain health isn’t something most people think about on a regular basis. We tend to simply assume that our brains will always be there, doing their jobs. But the truth is, the brain is just as vulnerable to injury as other parts of the body. And in fact, TBI can have more serious, longer-lasting effects than, say, a typical broken arm or leg. Don’t assume that concussions are “normal” or that they won’t happen to your child. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to prevent and recognize concussions, and to seek proper treatment if one occurs.
Adam Breiner, ND, is the medical director of the NeuroEdge Brain Performance Center, a division of the Breiner Whole-Body Health Center in Fairfield, Connecticut. The center, a free-standing hyperbaric facility, focuses on helping patients with neurological conditions. For more information, visit theneuroedge.com or wholebodymed.com.