Concussions are on our minds these days with the recent release of the Will Smith movie by the same name–Concussion. This month also happens to be National Winter Sports Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Awareness Month. So, what better time than now to give you a little primer on the subject to help you and your family stay safe as we begin this new year.
What is a concussion?
A concussion is a mild form of traumatic brain injury. It can occur after the head is hit directly or when a sudden stop or turn causes the brain to ricochet back and forth within the skull (see a video demonstrating this here).
The two things you need to know about concussions are these:
- Concussions always come with symptoms.
- Concussions do get better but when they happen one on top of another, they can be extremely dangerous–even deadly.
Though a loss of consciousness can be a sign of a concussion, a player doesn’t have to pass out to have one. Some kind of symptom does have to be present, though. Just because you bonked your head doesn’t mean you have a “hidden” concussion. You need to have some kind of symptom for the diagnosis to be made. If an injury has occurred, any of the following symptoms can be a sign of a concussion:
- Loss of consciousness
- Memory loss or confusion
- Dizziness or loss of balance
- Nausea or vomiting
- Change in mood or personality
- Sensitivity to light or noise
- Slurred speech
- Ringing in the ears
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you should continue to check for symptoms, hours and even days after injury. If symptoms get worse, go to the emergency room right away.
The presence of any symptoms warrants a visit to a healthcare professional, but any one symptom is not an automatic diagnosis of a concussion. A physician needs to conduct specific tests–of cognition, balance, and reaction time, to name a few–to make this diagnosis.
An MRI or X-ray of the head won’t usually show any abnormalities. Though not fully understood, a concussion isn’t caused by damage to the structure of the brain but to the way the brain functions. A physician may order these imaging tests, however, if a more serious condition is suspected.
The American Academy of Neurology has a comprehensive list of resources for parents, coaches and healthcare professionals to help rule out (or in) a concussion. Check out their free ToolKit here, they even have smart phone apps.
Second Impact Syndrome
Whether you are hitting the slopes or your kids are playing team sports, you need to be aware of the dangers of second impact syndrome. While, a concussion is considered a mild brain injury, getting another one before the brain has had a chance to heal can cause the brain to rapidly swell. This can lead to permanent injury and death.
What is the Treatment?
To prevent further injury, once a concussion is diagnosed, the treatment is simple: Rest.
This includes both rest from physical activities but also from mental strain. For students, this often means time off from class until focused mental exertion and light activity no longer cause an increase in symptoms.
Return to daily life and then to sports should be supervised and adhere to established guidelines. Several groups have established return-to-play guidelines including the CDC, the NCAA, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Schools in Texas follow the University Interscholastic League (UIL) guidelines.
For those of you who play or have children that play organized sports, make sure your coach or athletic trainer is aware of these guidelines and that they are strictly followed.
One more thing…
We would like to point out that the movie, Concussion, discusses a much more severe form of brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This condition usually occurs in high level athletes after many concussions sustained over the course of many years. It is rare, and not all athletes who get a lot of concussions end up with CTE.
Concussions themselves, though, are not rare and it is worth your time to learn the symptoms and return to play guidelines so you and your family can have a safe and Happy New Year!
Photo Credit: © Avner Richard/Dollar Photo Club