I’m concerned about childhood head injuries caused by contact sports. What are the possible effects of concussion in children?
Answers from Sherilyn W. Driscoll, M.D.
Most sports-related head injuries, such as concussions — which temporarily interfere with the way the brain works — are mild and allow for complete recovery. However, concussion in children also can pose serious health risks, ranging from temporary memory lapses to fatal brain swelling. Also, concussion in children sometimes goes unrecognized, as symptoms may not be noticed right after the injury.
Head injuries take time to heal. Your child will need time to rest until his or her symptoms are completely gone, which usually takes several days. Your child should rest from both physical and thinking (cognitive) activities, as these can worsen symptoms.
After your child’s head injury, your child risks other complications if he or she returns to sports and other activities before his or her concussion has healed. Another blow to the head while the initial concussion is healing can occasionally result in fatal brain swelling — a condition known as second impact syndrome. Also, a young athlete who sustains a concussion is at risk of developing postconcussion syndrome, which is characterized by persistent concussion symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, irritability and difficulty with thinking skills, such as memory and attention. These symptoms can be particularly confusing for a child, as well as his or her family and teachers, if the child doesn’t realize he or she has had a concussion. Researchers continue to study other potential long-term effects of concussions. Once a child has sustained his or her first concussion, he or she is at a higher risk of sustaining another. The effects of multiple concussions over years can be cumulative.
To protect your child from head injuries, insist on appropriate and properly fitted protective equipment — such as a helmet — during sports and other activities. However, helmets and mouth guards don’t protect against all concussions. Also, make sure your child knows that even a mild bump or blow to the head can cause a concussion, and that concussions don’t always involve a loss of consciousness. Signs and symptoms of a concussion may include:
• Headache or a feeling of “pressure” in the head
• Nausea or vomiting
• Balance problems or dizziness
• Double or blurry vision
• Sensitivity to light or noise
• Feeling sluggish, groggy or dazed
• Difficulty paying attention
• Memory problems
• Numbness or tingling
• Sleeping problems
• Mood changes
If you think your child has sustained a concussion, seek medical help immediately. Your child’s doctor will determine how serious the concussion is and when it’s safe for your child to return to sports, school or other activities.
Sherilyn W. Driscoll, M.D.