Back to school time means back to sports for kids of all ages. Participating in a sport always brings a risk of injury, none more serious than head injuries. A serious blow to the head can shake the brain around inside the skull, causing a concussion.
While it is more common in contact sports like football, a concussion can occur in any sport or activity. A team’s athletic trainer can evaluate a player who gets hit in the head, but in times where one is not available, it is up to parents to spot the signs of a concussion.
“The first step in treatment is recognizing the symptoms of a concussion. Common immediate symptoms include headache, neck pain, nausea and vomiting, confusion and changes in vision and balance,” says Bret Ripley, D.O., chairperson of the Family Medicine Clinic at Des Moines University. “The more serious the concussion, the longer the symptoms last.”
If you see any of these indicators after your child gets hit in the head, seek medical help. Doctors are trained at recognizing and treating concussions. If you can explain the symptoms your child is experiencing, it makes it easier for your doctor to evaluate.
“Quit playing today. That’s the first thing your child needs to do to recover from a concussion,” advises Dr. Ripley. “A second concussion before complete recovery increases the chances of permanent harm.”
Recovery takes time and rest; there is no medication to treat a concussion. The latest protocol requires a graded return to activity. There are six stages of rehabilitation, each lasting a minimum of 24 hours.
- No activity – Full rest with no cognitive activity, including TV, music and reading.
- Light aerobic exercise – Low-intensity activities like walking and swimming to increase heart rate.
- Sport-specific exercise – Movement is introduced, but no head impact activities allowed.
- Non-contact training drills – More complex drills to test coordination and cognitive load.
- Full-contact practice – Normal training activities to assess functional skills.
- Return to play – Full participation with no restrictions.
Assuming your child progresses through each stage successfully, they will only miss a week of action. However, if symptoms linger or reoccur, they can be stopped at any level or sent back to a previous level. If two weeks pass without clearance for full participation, Dr. Ripley recommends you seek a neurologic consultation to ensure nothing else is wrong.