Concussions can be scary for parents. A concussion is an invisible injury that affects a young athlete’s brain and can only be detected by watching carefully for symptoms.
For too long, concussions were ignored, since it’s often physically possible to play a sport—albeit at an impaired level—with a concussion. Now, with new research and awareness of concussions and their long-term side effects, this habit is fading. But not fast enough.
Most coaches and medical staff should know when to pull an athlete out of a game. But sometimes, the systems in place break down. As a matter of fact, a recent study found that only 6 of 48 concussions were diagnosed on the sideline of NCAA Division I football games—a very alarming stat.
According to Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, sideline tests currently in use are not all that reliable and are easy to beat if an athlete is determined to get back into a game. Unfortunately, more accurate tests have not been implemented.
Even in the NFL, where there are 27 medical professionals on the sidelines, concussions often go undiagnosed. It’s reached a point where the NFL now has a medical professional in the skybox who has the authority to take a player out of the game.
Since concussions are misdiagnosed even at the highest levels, parents have good reasons to be concerned about their children’s safety. That’s why Nowinski recommends taking matters into your own hands if the situation arises. Here’s what you need to know:
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Keep a Watchful Eye for Symptoms
The first step to keeping your child safe is to know the common symptoms of a concussion. The CDC lists the following signs and symptoms:
Image via CDC.gov.
Whether you suspect a concussion or not, pay attention if your child exhibits any of these symptoms. For example, if he or she has a headache or is sensitive to light after a game, don’t just write it off as nothing and give them some Tylenol. Keep a careful eye for other symptoms and be in constant communication with your child so you can get a full picture of how they are feeling.
Watch Your Child Closely During a Game
When you’re in the stands, you naturally watch your athlete more than anyone else. Coaches are focused on strategy, and even the medical staff can get distracted with gameplay or when attending to other issues. So there’s a chance your athlete could sustain a concussion, and no one would notice.
Consider your position in the stands like the NFL official in the skybox. You have the best point of view to notice a situation where a concussion might have occurred.
“Parents are going to be the No. 1 diagnosers of concussions, not necessarily the medical staff,” says Nowinski.
Nowinski’s simple rule for diagnosing a concussion: If you think you saw a concussion, you almost certainly did. “If a player gets hit hard and stumbles for even a step or two, that’s enough,” he says. “Unless their shoelace is untied, then their balance was impaired and the athlete should be pulled out of the game.”
Concussions don’t necessarily have to be caused by a tackle or collision. For example, headers in soccer have been known to cause concussions. Regardless, keeping a watchful eye on your athlete immediately increases the chance of detecting a concussion.
Take Action When Needed
If you think you saw a concussion, and your athlete comes back onto the field a few minutes later, it’s time to take action. The concussion assessment process broke down at some point, whether your athlete misreported his or her symptoms or the medical staff was unable to detect any issues with current testing protocols.
“No matter what sport we’re studying, we only diagnose a fraction of concussions,” Nowinski adds. And he says the bar for pulling an athlete out is set much too low.
“If a player doesn’t pop up after a hit involving their head and there’s nothing else obviously wrong, we should assume or suspect they have a concussion and investigate further,” he asserts. “Even if they don’t show any symptoms after they stand up.”
So what should you do? Your child’s safety always takes priority, so take your child out of the game. Although the decision might be unpopular with your athlete or his or her coach, you have the final say about your child’s health.
My Kid Has a Concussion, Now What Do I Do?
It’s important to allow your young athlete to recover fully after a concussion. If your kid exhibits any lingering symptoms, his or her brain still needs to heal. If the symptoms get worse at any point, immediately take your athlete to the emergency room to check for more serious issues.
The most important thing you can do is to support your athlete through the recovery process and limit pressures to return to play. It’s critical to follow these concussion recovery guidelines.