What is a concussion?
A concussion is a brain injury which results in a temporary disruption of normal brain function. A concussion occurs when the brain is violently rocked back and forth or twisted inside the skull as a result of a blow to the head or body. An athlete does not have to lose consciousness (“knocked-out”) to suffer a concussion.
It is estimated that over 140,000 high school athletes across the United States suffer a concussion each year. (Data from NFHS Injury Surveillance System)
- Concussions occur most frequently in football, but girl’s lacrosse, girl’s soccer, boy’s lacrosse, wrestling and girl’s basketball follow closely behind. All athletes are at risk.
- A concussion is a traumatic injury to the brain.
- Concussion symptoms may last from a few days to several months.
- Concussions can cause symptoms which interfere with school, work, and social life.
- An athlete should not return to sports while still having symptoms from a concussion as they are at risk for prolonging symptoms and further injury.
- A concussion may cause multiple symptoms. Many symptoms appear immediately after the injury, while others may develop over the next several days or weeks. The symptoms may be subtle and are often difficult to fully recognize.
What are the signs and symptoms of a concussion?
SIGNS OBSERVED BY PARENTS, FRIENDS, TEACHERS OR COACHES
SYMPTOMS REPORTED BY ATHLETE
- Appears dazed or stunned
- Is confused about what to do
- Forgets plays
- Balance problems or dizziness
- Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
- Double or fuzzy vision
- Moves clumsily
- Sensitivity to light or noise
- Answers questions slowly
- Feeling sluggish
- Loses consciousness
- Feeling foggy or groggy
- Shows behavior or personality changes
- Concentration or memory problems
- Can’t recall events prior to hit
- Can’t recall events after hit
What should I do if I think my child has had a concussion?
If an athlete is suspected of having a concussion, he or she must be immediately removed from play, be it a game or practice. Continuing to participate in physical activity after a concussion can lead to worsening concussion symptoms, increased risk for further injury, and even death. Parents and coaches are not expected to be able to “diagnose” a concussion, as that is the job of a medical professional. However, you must be aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion and if you are suspicious, then your child must stop playing:
When in doubt, sit them out!
All athletes who sustain a concussion need to be evaluated by a health care professional who is familiar with sports concussions. You should call your child’s physician and explain what has happened and follow your physician’s instructions. If your child is vomiting, has a severe headache, is having difficulty staying awake or answering simple questions he or she should be taken to the emergency department immediately.
When can an athlete return to play following a concussion?
After suffering a concussion, no athlete should return to play or practice on that same day. Previously, athletes were allowed to return to play if their symptoms resolved within 15 minutes of the injury. Studies have shown us that the young brain does not recover quickly enough for an athlete to return to activity in such a short time.
Concerns over athletes returning to play too quickly have led state lawmakers in both Oregon and Washington to pass laws stating that no player shall return to play following a concussion on that same day and the athlete must be cleared by an appropriate health-care professional before he or she are allowed to return to play in games or practices. The laws also mandate that coaches receive education on recognizing the signs and symptoms of concussion.
Once an athlete no longer has symptoms of a concussion and is cleared to return to play by health care professional knowledgeable in the care of sports concussions he or she should proceed with activity in a step-wise fashion to allow the brain to re-adjust to exertion. On average the athlete will complete a new step each day. The return to play schedule should proceed as below following medical clearance:
Step 1: Light exercise, including walking or riding an exercise bike. No weight-lifting.
Step 2: Running in the gym or on the field. No helmet or other equipment.
Step 3: Non-contact training drills in full equipment. Weight-training can begin.
Step 4: Full contact practice or training.
Step 5: Game play.
If symptoms occur at any step, the athlete should cease activity and be re-evaluated by their health care provider.
How can a concussion affect schoolwork?
Following a concussion, many athletes will have difficulty in school. These problems may last from days to months and often involve difficulties with short and long-term memory, concentration, and organization.
In many cases it is best to lessen the athlete’s class load early on after the injury. This may include staying home from school for a few days, followed by a lightened schedule for a few days, or perhaps a longer period of time, if needed. Decreasing the stress on the brain early on after a concussion may lessen symptoms and shorten the recovery time.
What can I do?
- Both you and your child should learn to recognize the “Signs and Symptoms” of concussion as listed above.
- Teach your child to tell the coaching staff if he or she experiences such symptoms.
- Emphasize to administrators, coaches, teachers, and other parents your concerns and expectations about concussion and safe play.
- Teach your child to tell the coaching staff if he or she suspects that a teammate has a concussion.
- Monitor sports equipment for safety, fit, and maintenance.
- Ask teachers to monitor any decrease in grades or changes in behavior that could indicate concussion.
- Report concussions that occurred during the school year to appropriate school staff. This will help in monitoring injured athletes as they move to the next season’s sports.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it so important that an athlete not return to play until they have completely recovered from a concussion?
Athletes who are not fully recovered from an initial concussion are significantly vulnerable for recurrent, cumulative, and even catastrophic consequences of a second concussive injury. Such difficulties are prevented if the athlete is allowed time to recover from the concussion and return to play decisions are carefully made. No athlete should return-to-sport or other at-risk participation when symptoms of concussion are present and recovery is ongoing.
Is a “CAT scan” or MRI needed to diagnose a concussion?
Diagnostic testing, which includes CT (“CAT”) and MRI scans, are rarely needed following a concussion. While these are helpful in identifying life-threatening brain injuries (e.g. skull fracture, bleeding, swelling), they are not normally utilized, even by athletes who have sustained severe concussions. A concussion is diagnosed based upon the athlete’s story of the injury and the health care provider’s physical examination.
What is the best treatment to help my child recover more quickly from a concussion?
The best treatment for a concussion is rest. There are no medications that can speed the recovery from a concussion. Exposure to loud noises, bright lights, computers, video games, television and phones (including text messaging) all may worsen the symptoms of a concussion. You should allow your child to rest as much as possible in the days following a concussion. As the symptoms lessen, you can allow increased use of computers, phone, video games, etc., but the access must be lessened if symptoms worsen.
How long do the symptoms of a concussion usually last?
The symptoms of a concussion will usually go away within one week of the initial injury. You should anticipate that your child will likely be out of sports for about two weeks following a concussion. However, in some cases symptoms may last for several weeks, or even months. Symptoms such as headache, memory problems, poor concentration, and mood changes can interfere with school, work, and social interactions. The potential for such long-term symptoms indicates the need for careful management of all concussions.
How many concussions can an athlete have before he or she should stop playing sports?
There is no “magic number” of concussions that determine when an athlete should give up playing contact or collision sports. The circumstances surrounding each individual injury, such as how the injury happened and length of symptoms following the concussion, are very important and must be considered when assessing an athlete’s risk for further and potentially more serious concussions. The decision to “retire” from sports is a decision best reached following a complete evaluation by your child’s primary care provider and consultation with a physician or neuropsychologist who specializes in treating sports concussion.
I’ve read recently that concussions may cause long-term brain damage in professional football players. Is this a risk for high school athletes who have had a concussion?
The issue of “chronic encephalopathy” in several former NFL players has received a great deal of media attention lately. Very little is known about what may be causing dramatic abnormalities in the brains of these unfortunate retired football players. At this time we have very little knowledge of the long-term effects of concussions which happen during high school athletics.
In the cases of the retired NFL players, it appears that most had long careers in the NFL after playing in high school and college. In most cases, they played football for over 20 years and suffered multiple concussions in addition to hundreds of other blows to their heads. Alcohol and steroid use may also be contributing factors in some cases. Obviously, the average high school athlete does not come close to suffering the total number or shear force of head trauma seen by professional football players. However, the fact that we know very little about the long-term effects of concussions in young athletes is further reason to
very carefully manage each concussion.
Some of this information has been adapted from the CDC’s “Heads Up: Concussion in High School Sports” materials by the NFHS’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. Please go to www.cdc.gov/ncipc/tbi/Coaches_Tool_Kit.htm for more information.
If you have any further questions regarding concussions in high school athletes or want to know how to find a concussion specialist in your area please contact Michael C. Koester, MD, ATC and Chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PDF – A Parent_s Guide to Concussions in Sports
PDF – 2009 NFHS Concussion Brochure_7_7
PDF – Concussion Checklist