Concussions can be traumatic for young athletes and their parents. It's one of the last things you want your child to have to deal with. But sports are played at high speed, and any time there's an opportunity for a collision, there's a chance for a concussion.
So it's important to be completely prepared to maximize your young athlete's recovery and help him or her get back to normal as quickly as possible. We spoke with Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, to find out what parents need to know about concussions that they might not otherwise learn from a routine visit to the doctor's office.
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The Brain Fixes Itself Most of the Time
The brain is an incredible organ. It's typically able to completely repair the damage caused by a concussion. "Eighty percent of concussions recover within a month with no long-term symptoms," says Nowinski. However, some concussions do take longer to recover from. That's why there should never be a static return-to-play date; it should be flexible based on the athlete's recovery. If the player is still experiencing symptoms, under no circumstances should he or she be on the field.
Your Kid Needs to Stay Awake After a Concussion
In rare circumstances, a blood clot or brain bleed can form from the head impact that initially caused the concussion, and it can be fatal if left unaddressed. Symptoms that require an immediate trip to the emergency room include:
- One pupil larger than the other
- Player is drowsy or cannot be awakened
- A headache that gets worse
- Weakness, numbness or decreased coordination
- Repeated vomiting or nausea
- Slurred speech
- Convulsions or seizures
- Cannot recognize people or places
- Becomes increasingly confused, restless or agitated
- Unusual behavior
- Loses consciousness (even a brief loss of consciousness should be taken seriously)
In the past, it was recommended to regularly wake someone with a concussion throughout the night to make sure there are no issues. It's OK to allow them to sleep, but just not right away. "Current guidelines recommend to keep them awake for a couple hours after a potential concussion to look for these life-threatening symptoms, "says Nowinski. If none of the above symptoms appear, a good night of uninterrupted sleep will help with recovery.
Rest Goes Beyond Staying At Home
Resting allows a concussed brain to return to normal function. The most obvious thing is to keep your kid out of school and away from his or her sport. But, you should also monitor what they're doing at home so they're not too stimulated.
"It's important to limit screen time," Nowinski says. "There are large parts of the brain involved in vision, so if you do visually stimulating activities, you're not resting your brain."
That being said, you don't want to confine your athlete to a dark and quiet room. He or she will eventually become frustrated and feel isolated. Instead, allow him or her to do relaxing activities, as tolerated. If watching some TV with the family provokes no symptoms, there's no need to worry.
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Reinforce Their Emotional Well-Being
Recovering from a concussion can be a frustrating time for young athletes. They don't feel right, and they desperately want to return to their normal activities. But as parents, you need to reinforce that resting now will pay off in the long run.
"You can tell them that if you don't rest your concussion now, it may impair their ability to continue to play and reach the level they want to reach," says Nowinski.
If that's not enough, you can explain that playing with a concussion is like playing with a broken leg. Obviously, the injury is significantly different.
"You're not helping your team when you're out there playing with a concussion," Nowinski says. "Your reaction time is impaired, your cognition is impaired, and you could end up making a mistake that costs your team."
They Can't Rush Back to School
Physically, young athletes can go back to school after a concussion. However, their brains might not be ready right away. Don't rush them back into school, or else the overly stimulating environment might impair their recovery.
"It's critical to work very closely with the school to manage return to the classroom. Every child will be different," Nowinski says. "Some athletes will need academic accommodations. It's amazing how grades can drop. We've seen kids go from straight A's to F's."
The Concussion Legacy Foundation works directly with schools to create Return to School programs, which allow athletes to gradually return to the classroom. Ideally, every school should have a similar program. Athletes should be able to return to the classroom at full speed before considering returning to their sport.
Monitor the Total Number of Concussions
According to Nowinski, one concussion isn't too much to worry about. However, multiple concussions should cause concern.
"One concussion usually is not a problem. But something like five concussions can be," he says.
There's no magic number when an athlete needs to stop playing. But it's important to monitor the total number of concussions, and potential lingering symptoms indicating that an athlete isn't completely recovered.
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