Know the signs of a concussion

August 27, 2010

The air is scorching. The grass is brittle. Mothers are telling their sons to take off their cleats before coming in the house. It must be football season in Texas.

Which means that from now through March, all news will be focused on pigskins.

One of the most popular football topics this season will be concussions. The NFL has placed a new emphasis on concussion awareness — and for good reason. Studies on former NFL players showed that concussions greatly increase the chance of developing Alzheimer's and other memory-loss problems.

Greater awareness of concussions is trickling down to high school athletic programs, where the majority of concussions occur. A study by the National Athletic Trainers Association found that 4 to 6 percent (about 68,000) of high school football players get concussions every year. That number doesn't seem likely to get better any time soon, since athletes are increasingly bigger and faster. This leads to more violent collisions in some sports.

Another statistic: Only 47 percent of concussions in high school athletes are reported. In other words, half of the athletes who get concussions don't report them and therefore may not be properly treated.

That's a statistic we can improve if players, parents and coaches learn to recognize the signs of a concussion.

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Dr. Shane Miller, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Children's, talked about concussion symptoms when he spoke with aspiring young players at Cowboys Camp this summer:

Dr. Shane Miller speaks on concussions

Keep in mind that concussions aren't limited to the football field. Cheerleading is second in concussions behind football. In fact, the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators just published the first guidelines for return to play for cheerleaders with concussions (See sidebar.)

Furthermore, concussions happen fairly regularly in all contact sports and can occur on playgrounds, backyards — even in living rooms when kids jump off furniture.

But how would you know if you child has a concussion? Here are some signs that parents, coaches and teachers should be aware of:

  • Appearing dazed or stunned
  • Being forgetful
  • Being unaware of surroundings
  • Exhibiting unsteadiness
  • Moving clumsily
  • Answering slowly
  • Showing behavior or personality changes
  • Losing consciousness

What to do if you suspect a concussion

If you think your child has suffered a concussion, immediately take him or her out of the game, and don't let them to return to play the same day of the injury. Afterwards, monitor your child closely for the next 24 to 48 hours.

Look for any lingering symptoms, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty in school
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Personality changes

Take your child to the doctor immediately if he or she has:

  • A severe headache
  • Extreme confusion
  • Trouble waking up
  • Vomits more than once, with no other explanation
  • A seizure
  • Trouble walking or talking
  • Weak or numb arms or legs
  • Any sudden changes in thinking or behavior

Kids who've had a concussion need to rest until their symptoms are completely gone. Attendance at school, schoolwork, sports and even videogame activity may need to be modified until the symptoms have improved, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

And children usually need a longer recovery time than adults. Once they are symptom-free, kids should gradually increase their activity levels, with at least 24 hours between each stage as long as their symptoms don't get worse with the activity. If the symptoms do return or get worse, they should rest for 24 hours before trying again. Most children will recover completely from a concussion within a few weeks.

Returning to play before completely recovering from the first injury puts your child at a higher risk for a more serious injury, long-term damage and even death. And any child who has a concussion should be medically evaluated by a physician before returning to play.

More resources on:

Concussion prevention (sports-related protective gear)
Sports Medicine Center at Children's Medical Center
Sports injury prevention guides