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Getting Our Heads Around the Seriousness of Concussions in Young Athletes

Concussions are often talked about in NFL and college football because of the intense blows athletes often take to the head throughout games. But, it may surprise you to know that concussions are on the rise in 8 to 13 year old boys and girls in a variety of sports.

Concussions can have long-term negative impacts on an athlete. In fact, a recent study revealed that 96 percent of NFL players who were tested were positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a disease caused by concussions that is linked to dementia, depression and even suicide.

Coaches of all sports must be aware that concussions can occur to their athletes. Though statistics still put football, soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse as the sports that report the most concussions at the high school level, concussions in cheerleading are on a rise.

As teams progress into jumps, tumbling and stunting, the risk of concussions increases. However, how and where the concussions occur is a bit surprising. Often, it is not the flyer suffering a concussion (though they can if there is a fall) but it is often the catchers who are the ones receiving head impacts. Plus, stunts and jumps performed off mark can result in whiplash, also causing concussions.

What is a head injury?

A concussion occurs when impact to the head or body is so great that it causes the brain to slam against the inner skull, causing brain bruising, swelling or bleeding. Because these effects not visible, concussions are often—and dangerously—ignored.

There are symptoms that should be instantly recognized because the head injury causes temporarily disruption of normal neurological functions. Contrary to popular belief, one does not have to experience loss of consciousness to have a concussion. There is also not a rule that says concussions only occur if the impact hits a particular point of the head, or if the impact occurs with a specific force.

Concussions can even occur without a blow to the head. Whiplash, which is described a violent shake to the head or upper body, can also result in a concussion.

Recognition

Symptoms of a concussion include: memory loss, confusion, headache or a feeling of pressure in the head, temporary loss of consciousness, confusion or feeling as if in a fog, dizziness or “seeing stars,” ringing in the ears, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, loss of balance, delayed response to questions, appearing dazed and fatigue.

Some symptoms may not show up until hours or even days after the hit. These symptoms include: concentration and memory complaints, irritability and other personality changes, sensitivity to light and noise, sleep disturbances and disorders of taste and smell.

If any of these symptoms are recognized, experts agree than an athlete should not return to play until he or she has been medically evaluated by a health care professional trained in evaluating and managing concussions. A second concussion that occurs within seven days of the first can result in rapid and usually fatal brain swelling.

The Center for Disease Contral has created the HEADS UP Initiative to provide information on concussion prevention and recognition for leagues, coaches, parents and athletes. The downloadable and customizable resources include Fact and Actions sheets, Signs and Symptom posters for the locker room and coach’s clipboards and other downloadable information. These tools are the first steps all coaches, parents, athletic directors and athletes should reference as they become more astute to recognizing and treating concussions on the field of play. Visit http://www.cdc.gov/headsup/basics/index.html to learn more.

Prevention

Coaches and parents must learn to recognize the causes and symptoms of concussions and act immediately. If after wicked hit the child comes off the field saying he or she is fine and can continue to play, remember that there are severe implications to the wellbeing of the athlete if he or she takes another hit.

Many states require that youth sport coaches be trained in concussion awareness and recognition. Some states even have laws requiring that youth not play once they show symptoms of a concussion until they receive medical clearance from a physician. Are you or your child’s coaches trained in this area? It’s better to know sooner rather than later.

Create a culture among your team that it is okay to be hurt. Many kids say they are okay when they are really not because don’t want to let down their teammates, coach or parents. Allowing your athlete to sit out and heal teaches respect for themselves and their body. Also, encourage your teammates to look out for each other’s wellbeing in practice and play, and encourage teammates to speak out when a team member appears hurt, but doesn’t want to self-report. If your team creates a culture of safety, your team ultimately will function better together as a whole.

Ensure that athletes are wearing the proper recommended headgear for their sport and that the headgear fits properly and is always secured to fit. Often kids will loosen straps to feel more comfortable. Also, coaches should teach proper technique from the start, be it tackling, checking, heading, or proper tucking of the head while flipping or catching. Good habits learned in the initial stages of sports development will carry forth into lifelong safe play and help prevent early “career” ending injuries.

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