A type of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works. Health care professionals may describe a concussion as a "mild" brain injury because concussions are usually not life threatening. Even so, their effects can be serious.
Q: Will my child be OK?
A: Most likely, he will be just fine. The vast majority of children who have sustained a concussion make a complete recovery with no complications. However, it’s crucial that a child with a concussion is diagnosed and treated properly, and that he avoids physical and mental exertion for the period of time recommended by his doctor.
Some children with concussions do develop more serious complications. It might be months before they regain normal brain function and feel “like themselves” again. This is especially true of children who experience a second concussion when they have not fully recovered from their first.
If your child has suffered a possible concussion, the most important thing you can do to maximize his chances of a full recovery is to seek immediate medical treatment. Always follow prescribed recommendations for rest, monitoring and follow-up care. And, if your child plays sports, be sure to adhere to the restrictions and gradual schedule for return to play outlined by his doctor.
Q: Is a direct blow to the head the only way of getting a concussion?
A: No. Concussions occur when the brain is sent into a sudden "spin," which can also happen when there's a blow to the chest or torso that causes the head to snap forwards or backwards.
Q: Which sports carry the highest risk of concussion?
A: Football tends to attract the most attention in the media, but ice hockey players are just as likely – if not more likely – to suffer sports-related concussions. And virtually any sport or physical activity can result in concussions: here at Children’s, we have seen patients with concussions sustained during baseball, softball, rugby, wrestling, lacrosse, soccer, basketball, field hockey, horseback riding and even swimming!
Q: Is a concussion always obvious right away?
A: Most of the time, warning signs show up shortly after the initial impact. However, it’s also possible that symptoms won’t emerge until later (or that they will be subtle enough to be overlooked, especially if the child has also suffered a more visible injury like a fracture or laceration).
For this reason, it’s a must that – even if your child has received immediate treatment from a coach, athletic trainer, school nurse or EMT, or in the emergency room – he also see his regular doctor as soon as possible. He should be monitored closely for the next few days.
Q: Is there any way to prevent concussions? Can’t helmets and mouthguards stop them from happening?
A: Nothing can prevent a concussion altogether. Helmets were designed to guard against catastrophic brain injuries, not concussions (and mouthguards, although very good at protecting the mouth and teeth, don’t lower the risk of concussions, either.)
Neck-strengthening exercises can likely reduce the chance of your child’s head snapping forward or backward if he sustains a blow to the body. Talk to your doctor about recommended exercises for your child’s age, size and (if applicable) the sport he plays.
Finally, if your child has already suffered one concussion, the best way to prevent another is to make sure he has recovered fully (getting plenty of mental and physical rest) and has been cleared by a doctor before returning to his normal routine, including athletics.
Q: What is chronic traumatic encephalopathy? Could my child develop it as an adult?
A: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a relatively new diagnosis. It is a rare syndrome that has been observed in some former athletes – most notably, football players – who suffered multiple concussions during their sports careers, and went on to experience severe mental health and memory problems later in life. Autopsies have revealed changes in their brains that are very similar to the changes caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Doctors and researchers believe that sustaining repeated concussions on the playing field may have caused irreversible brain damage in these athletes. However, since the disease is so newly discovered, and research is still in the very early stages, it is entirely possible that other factors beyond multiple concussions were involved.
Q: What is second impact syndrome and is my child is at risk?
A: Second impact syndrome happens when someone who has not completely recovered from a prior concussion sustains another blow to the head, even a minor one. For reasons that doctors do not fully understand, some of these individuals experience massive brain swelling that can lead to a coma or even death.
Although second impact syndrome has received widespread news coverage, it is a rare phenomenon. It can be avoided by reporting concussions, and being honest with medical personnel. It’s always essential that a child who sustains a concussion is given plenty of time to heal and rest – and gets formal clearance from his doctor before returning to playing sports and the rest of his daily routine.
Q: Does my child need to give up sports if she’s suffered a concussion?
A: Most likely, no. Nearly every student-athlete who experiences a concussion can eventually return to sports – but only gradually (after getting the prescribed amount of rest), and only with a doctor’s explicit permission. Talk to your child’s doctor about the approach that will work best for her.