Sadly, sports-related head injuries are becoming a common occurrence. Though sports injuries rarely result in death, sports and recreational activities contribute to a fifth of traumatic brain injuries among kids in the U.S. If you’re a parent, here’s what you need to know about protecting your child.
Safety starts with a helmet
Kids should wear helmets during skateboarding, rollerblading, baseball, cycling, football, downhill skiing and snowboarding, says Brian Iuliano, M.D., a Providence neurosurgeon in southwest Washington. A loose helmet that wiggles won’t provide much protection, so ensure it fits snug but not too tight. To prevent a skull fracture, the helmet should cover the temporal bones (in front of and above the ear), which are thinner and more fragile.
Remember to replace damaged helmets immediately. And, don’t be fooled by price tags. A more expensive helmet doesn’t necessarily provide extra protection, according to a recent report. The study also found older helmets that had not been reconditioned offered less protection than newer helmets or ones that had been recently reconditioned.
In addition to wearing a suitable helmet, children should receive appropriate training. If they play football, do they know how to correctly tackle? Do they know how to turn and stop on skis? “Proper technique, along with practice, will help reduce injury, avoid falls and minimize impact,” says Dr. Iuliano.
It’s critical to wear a helmet, but helmets don’t always prevent concussions. “Helmets, especially for football and biking, are designed to prevent severe head injuries like skull fractures and brain contusions,” says Dr. Iuliano. “One mechanism that feeds concussion is sudden deceleration or acceleration where the brain moves inside skull.”
A concussion, which is considered a mild traumatic brain injury, occurs when a blow to the head is so powerful that the cushioning provided by cerebrospinal fluid can no longer protect the brain from rotating or hitting the skull. Roughly 250,000 kids (age 19 or younger) visited the emergency room in 2009 for a concussion or traumatic brain injury related to a sports and recreation accident, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 40,000 of those injuries are linked to high school football, says Dr. Iuliano. One study found that high school football players are almost twice as likely to sustain a concussion compared with college athletes.
Know the signs of concussion
Call 911 or seek immediate medical attention if you notice any of the following:
- Loss of consciousness
- Slurred speech
- One-sided weakness
- Unequal dilation of eyes
- Extreme confusion
- Severe or increasing head or neck pain
- Problems breathing
- Bleeding or discharge from ears or nose
Consult a pediatrician or triage nurse if your child experiences any of the following:
- Seeing stars
- Mild amnesia
- Sensitivity to light or noise
- Depression, anger
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Problems with smell or taste
Until your child receives clearance from a doctor, avoid sports and other physical activities.
Treat a concussion
Hitting your head once isn’t necessarily a big deal, says Dr. Iuliano. What you want to avoid are repeat concussions or having one concussion too soon after the first one. Too many concussions, particularly within a year, can result in severe brain injury. Consult a pediatrician or primary care physician if your child sustains a concussion. Either provider should be able to counsel a patient before returning to sports.
If needed, your provider can refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist. The best treatment for concussion is rest, both physical and mental. Concussions can affect the ability to think and process, so the brain needs time to recover. “A child may return to school but it’s important for the school to have a plan in place to help with recovery,” says Dr. Iuliano.