A Heads-Up on Concussion

According to the Sports Concussion Institute, a concussion occurs as a result of a direct blow to the head or a whiplash effect.  It is most often defined as a head injury with a temporary loss of brain activity or function which may cause a variety of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms.  Because these symptoms are often very subtle, they may not be recognizable immediately following a blow.  Concussions almost always resolve within a few weeks, although symptoms may persist or cause other complications at a later time.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1.7 million people experience a concussion every year.  Infants and youngsters ages 0 to 4 and teens and young adults ages 15 to 19 are at highest risk for concussion.

Symptoms of concussion may include headaches, nausea, difficulty with concentration, confusion, irritability, loss of short-term memory, appetite loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, changes in taste and smell, trouble sleeping, and decreased energy levels.

Figures from the Sports Concussion Institute estimate that approximately 53 percent of high school athletes have suffered a concussion and 36 percent of college athletes have had multiple concussions.  These concussions are considered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), causing the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth.  This sudden movement may cause the brain to twist in the skull, causing brain cells to become damaged and changing the brain chemically.

Most concussions are not life-threatening, but the effects that they create can be serious.  Teens and children who receive blows to the head caused by sports injuries, car accidents, falls, or being struck on the head may say that they just “don’t feel right” after the traumatic event.  There are certain signs or symptoms however that would warrant more extensive examination.  These include the following:

  • Appearing stunned or dazed after the inciting event
  • Moving very slowly or awkwardly
  • Losing consciousness (even for a short period of time)
  • Is not able to recall events prior to or after the fall or blow
  • Speaks and answers questions slowly
  • Exhibits changes in behavior, mood, or personality
  • Vomiting or feeling of nausea
  • Dizziness or problems with balance
  • Feeling groggy or sluggish
  • Are bothered by noise or light
  • Memory problems or confusion
  • Drowsiness or inability to wake up
Some of these symptoms may not show up for hours or even days after the trauma. Teens and children should always be seen by healthcare providers, especially if symptoms worsen or persist. Often the provider will order a CT scan of the brain to look for signs of more serious injury to the brain. They may perform neuropsychological or neurocognitive tests to assess memory skills, concentration, and problem-solving abilities.   All of these types of tests will help the healthcare provider assess the effects of the concussion.
Prevention for concussions includes wearing seat belts; helmets for certain sports activities including biking, in-line skating, motorcycle riding, horseback riding, football; and avoiding hits to the head. Helmets should be well maintained and age-appropriate. Even when worn correctly and consistently however helmets are not concussion-proof and provide only a limited amount of protection.

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