How to Reduce the Risks of Sports Concussions in Young Athletes

Rest from sports and school urged by new pediatric guidelines.

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Student athletes risk concussion in many sports, and it's tempting for coaches and players to ignore the fact that concussions are traumatic brain injuries that can lead to permanent disability or death. Fortunately, attitudes are changing, thanks to publicity on the devastating brain injuries suffered by some pro football players, as well as a push by doctors to be more proactive in treating concussions.

That may be why a new report in Pediatrics found that from 1997 to 2007, the number of emergency room visits for concussions in 8- to 13-year-olds doubled, and more than doubled in 14- to 19-year-olds. Parents may be more aware that head injuries need medical attention, leading to more ER visits. Or it could be that young athletes are playing harder and getting hurt more often.

[How to Protect a Teen Athlete From Sports Injury]

Young athletes are particularly susceptible to long-term brain damage because their brains are still developing. So parents have to get on their game and make sure that their children know that even a mild concussion is a serious injury that needs time to heal. New recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics say that any child who has suffered a concussion should be evaluated by a doctor and cleared before returning to play.

Here are three ways to reduce the risk of concussion and permanent brain damage for your child athlete:

  • Make sure children wear helmets for football, bicycling, skateboarding, skiing, lacrosse, ice hockey, kayaking, or any other sport where there's body contact or acceleration. A child can suffer a serious concussion while scootering on the driveway. Unfortunately, helmets are not an option for risky sports like soccer, gymnastics, or cheerleading, which accounts for the most catastrophic injuries of any high school sport.
  • Know the signs of a concussion, and make sure that young athletes know that you don't have to be knocked out cold to have one. Early signs include headache, dizziness or vertigo, lack of awareness to surroundings, and nausea or vomiting. Having just one of these symptoms is enough to warrant a visit to a doctor. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a checklist of concussion signs and symptoms that's easy to print out. And the American Academy of Neurology offers a more complete list, including the three grades of concussions. Even mild concussions need medical attention.
  • Heal concussions with rest until the athlete is completely symptom-free. And when the doctors say rest, they really mean it. Even playing video games or watching TV can worsen symptoms, so no sports or mental exertion (maybe even no school) until all symptoms are gone. That typically takes seven to 10 days, but for some people it can take weeks or months to be symptom-free. Parents need to resist the temptation to get a young athlete back in the game. Returning to sports before symptoms are resolved vastly increases the risk of permanent brain damage. The AAP now recommends that an athlete who has suffered multiple concussions or who has symptoms that haven't resolved after three months consider retiring from contact sports to reduce the risk of permanent problems.
  • Diagnosing and treating concussions is clearly a challenge. No one wants to yank a child from school and sports for no reason. But "better safe than sorry" has increasingly become the message, and a week on the sofa doesn't sound like too steep a price to pay for a healthy brain for life.