School is back in session, which also means all the kids’ fall sports and fun opportunities for organized play! As much as we wish we could keep our young athletes packed safe inside a bubble, that’s not exactly realistic. It’s no surprise that sports are immensely physical, and we know that one of the most traumatic sports injuries that can occur is one that poses any harm to the head. By associating yourselves with the risks of these types of injuries, you can better teach your child how to prevent a concussion.
What exactly is a concussion?
A concussion is an injury to the brain that is caused by a violent shaking of the head and body — or a blow, bump, or jolt that makes the head move quickly back and forth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Robert R. Sefcik, ATC, executive director of the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program (JSMP), says these types of injuries should always be taken seriously.
“While not necessarily life-threatening, a concussion is serious because it involves the brain and, if not recognized, could lead to other more catastrophic injuries if an athlete gets hurt again,” he notes.
For nearly 40 years, Wolfson Children’s Hospital has been a founding and sustaining partner of the JSMP, which is a volunteer-based nonprofit dedicated to youth sports safety through awareness, advocacy, and injury prevention.
What causes this type of injury?
A concussion can potentially be caused by any jarring bodily injury or blow to the head. The brain floats in fluid, and when you shake your head, it moves around inside the skull. This fluid is like a cushion that protects your brain from bumps or blows, but if it is hit hard enough, that soft, delicate brain tissue can be damaged. Certain physical activities classified as “collision sports” — consider basketball, football, soccer, and lacrosse — tend to have more risk of concussions but know that these brain injuries occur during any activity.
And concussions don’t always result from direct contact to the head or include losing consciousness. A body making forceful contact with the ground or another player, in sports such as football, can do it. Concussion symptoms can also be confusing and, to further complicate things, young athletes may not even feel symptoms until a full day (or more) later. Awareness is key to avoiding further injury.
“During the 2022–23 school year in Jacksonville, there were 144 concussions reported to and treated by high school athletic trainers. It’s alarming, and there’s a large percentage of concussions that are underrecognized or underreported,” says Sefcik.
What are the signs of a concussion?
Parents should review the importance of looking for and reporting any symptoms of concussion, and go over these in detail with their young athletes. Signs may include:
- Sensitivity to light and/or sound
- Irritability, anger, moodiness, or irrational behavior
“Sometimes the only sign they have is they don’t feel ‘right,’ or they feel like they’re in a fog,” says Sefcik.
The symptoms listed below — some of which may not present for hours or even days after the injury — should be looked at by a doctor immediately:
- One enlarged pupil
- Drowsiness or an inability to wake up
- A headache that worsens or doesn’t go away
- Slurred speech, weakness, numbness, or decreased coordination
- Repeated vomiting or nausea, shaking, or twitching
- Unusual behavior, increased confusion, restlessness, or agitation
- Loss of consciousness
- Any reported symptoms that seem to be getting worse
“If your child has had a head injury, please be seen at the nearest Children’s Emergency Center where we can evaluate for concussion symptoms and rule out more serious head injuries,” says Brian Gilligan, MD, medical director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine for Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “Our goal is to ensure the health of your child through careful evaluation and, when needed, observation in the ER, occasional head imaging, and hospitalization. The health of your child is our priority.”
How should families address a concussion at home?
“When someone has a concussion, one of the first things we recommend is for the person to ‘quiet down’ the eyes,” Sefcik adds. “The eyes and brain work together. Kids are on their phones all the time, and their eyes are continuously moving and working, and that is stimulating the brain.”
If your child has a concussion and is scrolling through Instagram while resting in bed, but they don’t seem to be improving, make sure to limit their screen time.
“We don’t want their eyes to work too hard because then the brain will work instead of rest,” Sefcik says.
While concussions can certainly be serious, most children and teens will bounce back from them just fine.
“A concussion is a common injury in sports today,” Sefcik says. “Typically, a player will recover from a first-time concussion in approximately seven to 10 days, if he or she is removed from play and follows a proper recovery plan.”
One question remains: When is it safe to get back on the field or court? Kids may be gradually reintroduced to their physical activities after getting medical clearance from the treating doctor and all symptoms are gone.
How do you prevent a concussion?
If your child or teenager is participating in any physical activity or sports, make sure he or she:
- Understands how concussions happen and when to tell a grown-up if he or she has been hurt.
- Plays on a team with safety protocols in place and a coach or organization trained in concussion-specific protocols.
- Follows any and all safety rules and understands why those rules exist.
- Always practices good sportsmanship and keeps an eye out for teammates and other players.
- Incorporates neck-strengthening exercises into his or her regular routine.
- Wears a properly fitting helmet if appropriate for the sport, but also remembers that no helmet is fully concussion-proof.
- Avoids blows to the head and uses proper techniques when the head is involved in play (such as headers in soccer).
- Wears the right safety equipment for all practices and games.
“All it takes is injuring your brain one time, and you can have long-term consequences,” Sefcik says. “Protect your brain and make sure to get appropriate medical advice.”
Don’t let your young athlete get knocked out of the game
If your child has suffered a head injury of any kind and is experiencing symptoms, take him or her to the nearest Children’s Emergency Center immediately. To learn more about youth sports injury awareness, advocacy, and prevention in Florida, visit jaxsmp.com or contact the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program at 904.202.4332.