Just the other day, the word concussion came up three separate times. News reports were abuzz with the latest on Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s concussion; a new documentary, Head Games by Director Steve James, exploring the consequences of head injuries among pro NFL players, was being promoted; and I overheard two women at the supermarket discussing their ten year old’s concussions–and their frustrations at the doctor who had not “cleared” their children to play soccer because their cognitive functions hadn’t returned to normal.
Why are we hearing so much about concussions lately? What’s new about them? While concussions aren’t new, they are a huge public health issue. As many as 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year – and those are only the ones reported! Scientists are just starting to look at the possible links between concussions and Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive health issues.
I used to think that concussions were rare—that they only happened in a car accident or in pro sports like football or hockey. I also thought you always lost consciousness, but then recovered fully and fairly quickly. This isn’t the case. Concussions are a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head or body, a fall, or another injury that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull. It can occur while riding a bike, playing on a playground, in any sport and without loss of consciousness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youths 15 to 19 sustain more concussions than those in most other age groups, and concussions are more damaging to adolescent brains than to adult brains. As a mother of three active children who play soccer and basketball, these statistics are quite disturbing–especially because I see the pressure kids are under to continue to play even while injured.
Know the Signs of a Concussion and What to Do
We all know the signs of a concussion–dizziness, headaches, nausea—but did you know that these symptoms can range from mild to severe and may last for hours, days, weeks, or even months? And that a concussion can lead to memory loss and difficulty concentrating, if not treated properly? To help recognize a concussion, look for these signs:
- a forceful bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body that results in rapid movement of the head AND
- any change in the athlete’s behavior, thinking, or physical functioning.
An athlete who experiences these symptoms should be kept out of the sport on the day of the injury and until a doctor says they are symptom-free (both physically and cognitively). Being active again too soon increases a child’s risk of a more serious brain injury, which can cause permanent brain damage, and, in rare cases, death.
There’s lots of research and news articles about concussions, including many heart-wrenching stories of those permanently affected by a concussion. It’s important to educate youth, parents and coaches about concussions early, while they are starting out in sports, in order to prevent possible long-term consequences. A great resource is CDC’s Heads Up initiative which provides information on preventing, recognizing, and responding to a concussion. Hopefully, through public education and research on this health issue, we can learn more about the long-standing effects of concussions and develop strategies to reduce these injuries, speed recovery, and keep our brains safe.