Recognizing sports concussions and providing treatment is important for young athletes

May 26, 2021

Concussions are mild traumatic brain injuries. They can occur in a wide range of sports and may affect all athletes, from professional players to little leaguers.

Recognizing concussion and providing proper treatment is especially important for younger athletes because it typically takes them longer than adults to fully recover.

Coaches, parents, and school administrators must be aware that concussion causes a wide range of symptoms and can interfere not only with sports participation, but with school and social relationships. Most athletes will fully recover from concussion and understanding the varied symptoms can help with the healing process.

A concussion temporarily impairs how the brain functions and processes information. For example, after a concussion, a patient may have difficulty with balance and coordination, memory, and speech.

A concussion is typically short-lived. Most people recover within 7 to 10 days. Unfortunately, once an athlete has sustained a concussion, he or she is at greater risk for additional concussions. Repeat concussions can have long-term consequences, so prevention is essential.

Cause

A concussion happens when a force causes the brain to rapidly move back and forth inside the skull. This may be caused by either a direct blow or by a blow to the body that forces the head to quickly rotate.

Although some sports have higher instances of concussion — such as football, ice hockey, and soccer — concussions can happen in any sport or recreational activity.

Symptoms

Because of the potential long-term consequences of sports concussion, it is important that athletes, coaches, and parents know as much as possible about how to recognize them.

Symptoms are not always obvious. Although it is commonly assumed that concussions cause loss of consciousness, many people with concussions have not been "knocked out."

Concussion causes a variety of symptoms. These may appear right away or may be delayed for several days after the injury. Some symptoms are physical, such as drowsiness. Others are cognitive, like memory loss. In many cases, people with concussions are more emotional than usual.

The most common symptoms of concussion include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory loss
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Balance problems, dizziness
  • Difficulty speaking and communicating
  • Depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in sleep patterns

Examination

During the evaluation, your doctor will ask questions about the injury and how it occurred. He or she may ask how severe the force was and whether you lost consciousness or had memory loss after the blow. It is especially important that you tell your doctor about any previous concussions you have had.

Your doctor will most likely perform a neurological examination, which tests for balance, coordination, vision, hearing, and reflexes.

Treatment

The key to healing from a concussion is complete rest. This includes not just physical rest, but mental rest, as well. Reading, computer work, video games and television should be limited until all symptoms have resolved. This typically takes 7 to 10 days, although some people have symptoms for weeks or months after the injury.

Once you are free of symptoms, you can gradually return to physical and mental activity. It is important to slowly return to daily activities because being symptom-free does not mean the brain injury has fully healed. Your doctor may recommend a step-by-step program: first add an activity, then monitor your symptoms. If your symptoms do not return, you can continue increasing the challenges.

This slow, steady approach typically reduces the time spent away from school, work, and athletics because it provides enough time for the injury to heal. Diving back into activities as soon as your symptoms have resolved can bring them back on and require a return to complete rest.

If you suffer a repeat concussion before your first concussion has healed, it may take much longer for your symptoms to resolve and you may have long-term problems, such as learning difficulties or chronic headaches. Although it rarely happens, repeat concussion can cause permanent brain damage and even death.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young athletes with concussions be evaluated and cleared by a doctor before returning to sports.

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