There has been much attention given recently to the potentially serious injury to the brain from suffering a concussion.
For professional athletes, such as football players, the recovery goal has been to return to the game as soon as they are physically able.
But for schoolchildren — who are at significant risk of learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral changes and memory problems — the focus of recovery should be mental as well as physical rest.
From babies to high school students, children with concussions make nearly 144,000 visits to emergency rooms each year. A significant number of injuries also go unrecognized and are not reported. I personally see a number of concussion injuries in my practice each year.
Younger athletes may be at a greater risk of damage from a concussion, because their brains are not fully developed. When athletes take a hit to the head in football, are slammed by an elbow in soccer or fall from a bike or skateboard, the brain gets banged against the inner walls of their skulls, thus causing the injury commonly referred to as a concussion.
Common symptoms of a concussion are:
- Loss of consciousness, no matter how brief
- Memory loss or behavioral changes, especially confusion or feeling “foggy”
Children with the above symptoms, or any other symptoms that worry parents or adult guardians after a head injury, should prompt an immediate medical evaluation at a facility best suited for this, such as an urgent-care clinic or a hospital emergency room. The evaluating physician may order a CAT scan of the head, depending on how serious the signs and symptoms are.
It can no longer be acceptable for a head-injured athlete, young or old, to “shake it off” and get back into the game. Our young athletes must be instructed to immediately report any head injury.
Coaches and trainers have become more aware of the potential dangers, both short and long term, of traumatic brain injuries and are having the injured players seek immediate medical evaluation.
Especially dangerous is the “second-impact syndrome” when a player receives a second significant head injury within a short time after the first injury. This can lead to even more serious health consequences.
Those of us in the medical profession who deal with head injuries are using protocols to help return the young athlete to their routine activities. The focus of recovery is rest, both physical and mental. The injured athlete needs to be eased back into all routine activities, and a medical reevaluation should be performed before allowing a return to contact sports.
The bottom line is that head injuries in athletes need to be taken seriously because of both immediate and potential long-term consequences. Mental rest after the injury is just as important as physical rest.
Although this column focuses on sports-related head injuries, the principles I have discussed pertain to anyone with a head injury, no matter the age of the individual or the cause of the injury.
- Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website, http://valleydoctor.wordpress.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.