What Parents Need to Know – and Do – About Their Teenagers and Sports Concussions

Dr. David Dodick is president of the American Migraine Foundation and immediate past-president of the American Headache Society.  He is also Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and a consultant in neurology at the Mayo Clinic, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

February 18-22 is National PTA Take Your Family to School Week, a hallmark PTA program where parents and schools come together to host special events that reaffirm the importance of family-school partnerships. This year, Take Your Family to School Week events will educate families on common child-related safety issues and ways to stay safe. For more information on Take Your Family to School Week, including resources to organize your own Take Your Family to School Week, visit PTA.org.

Sports-related concussions – traumatic brain injuries – are at an all-time high among teens in the U.S., and parents need to be alert to their symptoms and their dangers.  More kids are playing sports these days and are playing more competitively. It is estimated that some 135,000 young people a year experience a sports related concussion. Many end up in the emergency room.

As a neurologist and a headache specialist, what worries me is that most concussions in teenagers go unrecognized and unreported. Coaches, teachers, parents and even injured kids themselves fail to recognize how serious these blows can be. Often young athletes get sent back onto the playing field too soon, before their brain has fully recovered from the blow. This can put them at risk of a repeated concussion and potentially long-term neurological symptoms.

A concussion is more than just a blow to the head that makes a young person see stars or “rings their bell.”  Concussions can occur even without a blow to the head, and most concussions are not associated with loss of consciousness.

But they are dangerous and can cause immediate neurological problems as well as long-term, seriously disabling damage.

If your child experiences a blow to the head during play or if, after a sports injury, he or she is slow to get up or appears dazed, you need to be adamant that they be assessed on the sideline. Many kids go right back into the game, concerned that they’ll be seen as quitters or as not brave.  Coaches sometimes don’t realize the severity of the blow and let the young person continue to play.

Your head-injured child needs to be sidelined and seen by a healthcare professional who understands concussions.  In many states, medical help is the law. If the diagnosis is concussion, remember that most people are better within 7-10 days. But it’s important that they get enough rest and do not participate in any strenuous activities or sports. They may also need to modify their academic activities, as their brain takes time to heal. The younger the child, the longer it takes to recover from a concussion.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

1)      Get involved in your school’s athletic program.  Make sure your school has a policy of removing injured students from play and not returning them until they are cleared by a qualified health professional – and that this policy is enforced.

2)      Make sure your child knows how serious concussion can be.  A blow to the head may be followed by nausea, headache, vomiting and dizziness.  If his or her vision is blurry or double, or if he or she feels “foggy” or sleepy, it’s important for him or her to get off the field and tell the coach, trainer, and you.

3)      Teach your child how to avoid injury by wearing the appropriate protective gear and joining teams where players are similar in height, weight, strength and level of training.

4)      Make sure your child has had a baseline concussion test. These are done before a concussion and allow medical professionals to compare brain function before and after a blow to see if there has been any change.

5)      And stay vigilant. You are your child’s best protection against dangerous brain injuries.


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