Awareness about the risk of concussions and the serious threat of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) continues to grow. Parents are concerned about their student-athletes who participate in rugged athletics and contact sports.
The unfortunate reality is that even with the best helmets and pads, the risk of concussion will always be present. Nevertheless, there are many things that you can do to help prevent them, lessen their severity, and potentially reduce long-term side effects should your student-athlete suffer a concussion.
What Is A Concussion?
The human brain is a relatively soft organ that is protected inside the skull and surrounded and buffered by cerebrospinal fluid. Since the brain essentially floats in the fluid, it can move around and potentially contact the skull when the body suffers a hard fall or a blow to the head. It is the rapid movement of the brain and its rapid deceleration and contact with the inner surface of the skull that causes symptoms of concussion following head injury.
With injury, the potential to bruise or injure the brain is high. In some cases, a severe concussion can damage blood vessels and possibly injure nerves, and so affect normal brain function.
Which Sports Have Higher Concussion Risks?
Student-athletes are at higher risk of suffering a concussion than their non athlete counterparts because of the nature of some sports. Football, hockey, and lacrosse tend to be associated with the highest concussion risk, but skateboarding, mountain biking, skiing, and even soccer and baseball can also put a student-athlete at increased risk of suffering a concussion. Improper tackling techniques, an increased willingness to take risks, or not using safety equipment properly can increase the risk further.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Concussion?
Student-athletes who suffer a concussion often experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Confusion (feeling slowed down or mentally “foggy”)
- Decreased coordination or balance problems
- Difficulty concentrating, reasoning, or remembering
- Nausea & vomiting
- Sleepiness or drowsiness
- Excessive fatigue
- Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
- Sensitivity to light and/or noise
- Increased anxiety and irritability for no apparent reason
- Feeling sad or more emotional than usual
- Vision problems (double vision, blurring, etc.)
- Numbness or tingling
- Slurred speech
What is CTE?
Also known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE is a progressively degenerative brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries or TBI. Many professional athletes who suffer from CTE experienced their first traumatic brain injuries as student-athletes. Cumulative damage to the brain that starts in youth, can potentially show increasingly concerning symptoms later in life.
Parents often ask how many concussions are safe? While there is no universal agreement on the number of concussions that can lead to CTE, most experts agree that it is best to keep the number under three in total. Above this number, head injuries more easily lead to concussive symptoms that can last longer and be more severe.
How To Help Student-Athletes Reduce The Risk Of Sports Concussions
While your student-athlete can never be 100% safe from experiencing a concussion, there are a few things you can do to help reduce the risk as well as decrease the potential severity if they suffer a blow to the head or a hard fall.
Wearing The Right Equipment
Make sure your student-athletes have properly fitting, sport-appropriate headgear as well as other safety equipment for sports including biking, football, lacrosse, rollerblading, skateboarding, snowboarding, and skiing. Use high-quality mouth guards and other body pads to help decrease the impact caused by a hard fall.
Teach & Encourage Proper Techniques
In the professional sports world, football and hockey organizations are working tirelessly to promote proper tackling and striking techniques to reduce the impact on the head and body. Use of proper falling technique can also reduce the likelihood of a fall resulting in a head injury and concussion.
There are coaching organizations that teach coaches safety techniques and certify them. You might want to check if your child’s coaching staff has “Heads Up” or similar certification.
These days coaches are vigilant about watching students after a suspected blow to the head. On the other hand, they can’t see everything from every angle. Encourage your child to take themselves out of the game or to notify a coach immediately after suffering a blow to the head or a hard fall that has left them disoriented or experiencing other symptoms of a possible concussion.
A coach or athletic trainer should examine or assess them right after the injury. This “Sideline Testing” is common in most schools and sports leagues. It is the best first step in determining if your student-athlete needs medical care.
With the growing awareness of concussions in student-athletes and the long-term risks of CTE, many schools and athletic associations are testing players at the start of a sports season prior to any injuries to measure their normal brain function.
These baseline scores can then be compared to post injury testing results to assess changes, which might indicate that the student-athlete has suffered a mild to moderate concussion. It is especially helpful if initial symptoms are only mild, since testing is more sensitive at picking up mild concussions than the presence of symptoms reported by the athlete. The student can then be rested or benched to prevent further brain injury.
Testing can reduce the likelihood of long-term or latent concussion symptoms. This is especially true since some concussions don’t show immediately overt symptoms, and symptoms can be masked by adrenaline.
How Is A Concussion Treated?
At this time, there is no formal treatment procedure for mild to moderate concussions. Rest is typically the best medicine, and most physicians will recommend that a student-athlete with a concussion physically and mentally rest. This includes limiting activities that require thinking as well as strenuous mental concentration, and all contact with screens and electronic devices, for two to five days after the head injury.
At that point, most schools and athletic associations will implement a concussion protocol to ensure that the student-athlete has fully recovered from the concussion. This might include follow-up examinations with your child’s physician as well as comparing their performance with a baseline test from the start of the season.
After your student-athlete clears the concussion protocol they can slowly return to playing their sport over several days. Make sure they know that they should stop playing right away if any symptoms return, or if they suffer a second blow to the head.
How Long Does It Take To Recover From A Concussion?
With timely diagnosis and adequate rest, most adolescents with concussions recover within a week or two without any long-term health problems. More severe concussions or traumatic brain injuries can have more significant long-term effects, especially if your student-athlete has suffered multiple concussions in the past. Remember, you can always call your child’s pediatrician to discuss problems or concerns.