Recently there has been an increase in national attention on the possible dangers of head trauma for athletes. Be aware of how to recognize and lessen the likelihood of concussions as summer begins, launching a season of youth sport camps and outdoor activity for all ages.
Know the Symptoms
A concussion is a mild brain injury resulting from a traumatic force to the head. It can be caused by getting hit in the head with a ball, colliding with another person, falling down or any other incident that delivers a jolt or blow to the head. These forces damage brain cells and cause chemical changes in the brain. Symptoms of a concussion can show up right away or days later. They can include:
▪ balance problems
▪ mood or personality changes
▪ problems thinking clearly
▪ blurry vision
▪ nausea or vomiting
▪ sensitivity to noise or light
▪ inability to recall what happened before or after the incident
Because concussions can affect thinking, the person who suffered the injury might not realize there is a problem. If you suspect that someone has a concussion — especially a child who is not old enough to describe symptoms — make sure he or she sees a health care provider. If the injured person loses consciousness, has unequal pupils, has seizures or experiences a worsening of symptoms, seek immediate emergency help; these symptoms could be a sign of a more serious brain injury.
You may seek care either at an emergency room/urgent care center or your provider’s office. Your provider may order neurological imaging based on the results of simple tests of your memory and concentration to rule out a more serious problem, as CT/MRI scans will likely be normal in people with concussions. Some patients might need to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.
For a mild concussion, treatment includes physical and cognitive rest. Give the body a break from sports and other strenuous activity, and allow the brain to rest by limiting reading and similar tasks. A person with a concussion should be able to get adequate rest; and the caretaker should monitor the patient for worsening symptoms. Once cleared by their provider, athletes should return to their sport gradually, starting with light activity and working up to vigorous play. If a player returns to activity before the body heals from a concussion, a second injury could cause prolonged or worsened symptoms, or second-impact syndrome, a rare and potentially fatal condition in which another concussion causes rapid and severe brain swelling.
Reduce Your Risk
It’s impossible to refrain completely from activities that might cause a concussion, since anything from walking down stairs to participating in sports can lead to a fall or collision. However, common sense precautions can lessen your risk. For example, you can reduce the chance of many injuries by:
▪ wearing your seat belt in vehicles and putting children in age-appropriate safety seats
▪ removing throw rugs and other tripping hazards for seniors
▪ using safety gates at the top of stairs when young children are present
▪ making sure playground surfaces are soft
▪ wearing a helmet or other protective gear indicated for your sport
While protective gear, such as mouthguards and helmets, does not prevent concussions, it does help to protect players from fractures, bruises and lacerations. Be sure that helmets fit properly and are not damaged.
To lessen the risk of concussions in players, many regulating bodies for sports organizations are considering changes to their guidelines. Ideas include lowering the frequency of full-contact practices and increasing penalties for risky behavior.
This summer, and throughout the year, be aware of the symptoms of concussions so you can recognize a possible injury in yourself or others, especially young athletes. In the event of an injury, always see a medical professional before returning to activity.
Kathryn Gloyer is a sports medicine physician with Penn State Sports Medicine, a part of Penn State Health. The practice is located at 1850 E. Park Ave, Suite 112 in State College. To make an appointment, call 865-3566.