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Concussion 101 for Parents

What You Need to Know About Concussions as a Parent

Correctly identifying a concussion and responding appropriately is uniquely challenging because there are few visible symptoms. Because concussions are complex and can be difficult to diagnose, schools and athletic programs may be ill-equipped to recognize and treat them. Parents have the ability to close that gap, and advocate for their child’s health and safety, by educating themselves about the most common form of traumatic brain injury. Whether your child is enrolled in sports programs, or not, here is what every parent should know about concussions.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury where an abrupt bump or jolt that causes the brain to move inside the skull. When sudden force causes the brain to bounce, twist, or hit the inside of the skull, it can cause damage to brain cells and trigger chemical changes to the brain. The side effects of these injuries can take hours or days to appear, making concussions difficult to diagnose in the immediate aftermath of a head injury.

Who is most at risk for a concussion?

Any head injury, no matter how small, can present a risk for concussion, whether it’s whiplash from a fender bender or a stumble on an icy sidewalk. Children’s still-developing brains are more susceptible to concussion than adults, according to the Concussion and Brain Injury Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, and kids who are active, especially kids who play sports, face an increased risk. Sports played in less structured environments (like pick-up games or unsupervised activities like skateboarding) present additional vulnerability, since they’re less likely to be supervised and have return to play protocols in place.

Where are kids most likely to suffer a concussion?

Football is often at the center of the youth sports concussion conversation, yet data suggests the sports with the highest risk for concussions are football, soccer, rugby and lacrosse. In high school athletics, women’s soccer has the highest concussion incidence, according to a study from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Baseball, rarely considered a contact sport, has a much lower rate of concussion risk, yet that risk is smallest at the professional level, meaning high school, middle school and Little League baseball players may face more head injuries, and ultimately more concussions.The Mayo Clinic notes that, sports with less protective equipment, like soccer or boxing, may actually present a greater risk, which is something all parents should keep in mind.

How do I know if my child has a concussion?

Concussions have few outwardly visible symptoms, and there is a common misconception that concussions only occur after head injuries that lead to loss of consciousness. Common symptoms of concussion include headache, blurred vision, nausea, impaired motor skills and trouble paying attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These can be hard to detect, and require a conversation with your child about their symptoms after a head injury. Everyone’s concussion symptoms are different, and some may take days to appear. Concussion symptoms can last up to two weeks for many people, or even longer for about 20 percent of people with concussion, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Why is it important to recognize the signs of a concussion?

Part of the reason why concussions can have severe, long-lasting side effects is because they often go untreated. In young athletes or children who are active, failing to recognize the possibility of a concussion results in kids returning to play too early, and risking additional head injuries that can compound the effect of a concussion, further amplifying their risk for lasting damage. It can take up to a week for head pain stemming from a concussion to appear, and the longer a concussion is untreated, the greater the risk of long-lasting side effects, like post-traumatic headache, or second impact syndrome—when someone gets a second concussion before the first one had time to heal. If you suspect your child may have suffered a concussion, pay close attention to their symptoms, remove them from play and seek medical attention.

How do I know if it’s time to see a doctor?

Even if your child shows no symptoms of concussion, it’s important to know what to watch for in the days following a head injury. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a doctor visit within 1-2 days for anything more than a light bump on the head. If your child develops a new or worsening headache, seems more tired, sluggish or uncoordinated, or behaves in any way that seems out of character, seek medical care immediately. Severe danger signs, like loss of consciousness, vomiting, different pupil sizes and difficulty waking up in the days after an injury, may be signs of a brain bleed and require immediate emergency medical care.

Concussions are serious injuries, but unlike an illness or broken bone, they can be difficult for parents to detect. Young children may have difficulty explaining symptoms like sluggishness or disorientation, and older kids and teens, especially athletes, may be tempted to brush off their symptoms. Talking to your child before the issue comes up about the seriousness of head injuries, and being mindful of these signs, can help you identify a concussion and get the treatment he or she needs. For more tools for parents, visit our resource center.