Do Your Kids Love Sports? Great! But Beware of Brain Injuries

Young football player wearing a helmet to decrease risk of traumatic brain injuries

Niño con casco de football para reducir riesgo de lesiones cerebrales traumáticas

School sports are often a source of pride for parents. Children get their first taste of hard work and dedication outside of the home, and who wouldn’t want to dream big and hope little Marcos makes it to a pro team? But behind the glamour and the prestige of being an athlete, there is an ugly side — sports-related head injuries.

People of all ages and notoriety can suffer from a head injury. In 2009, for example, actress Natasha Richardson fell on a ski slope and bumped her head. Though only complaining of a headache after the fall, two days later she lapsed into a coma and died. She was not wearing a helmet at the time.

These sports-related head injuries fall into the medical category of traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 2 million emergency room visits annually due to TBI, and the most recent data available notes close to 300,000 cases a year are related to participation in sports and recreation.

Surely, safety gear technology has made us and our children safer. Or has it?

In truth, between 2001 and 2009, traumatic brain injuries, associated with sports and recreation activities, in children under 19 years of age rose by 57%.

What’s more, according to the CDC, certain traumatic brain injuries are actually more common in children than among adults in the same sport, primarily due to the immaturity of a child’s central nervous system and a lack of recognition of the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury, from the child and supervising adults.

Most common sports-related head injury

“Sports-related head injury” is an umbrella phrase, referring to a number of head injuries that occur during participation in sports, including bleeding in the brain, penetration injuries, and injuries as the result of oxygen deprivation.  

All of these conditions are serious, but parents should know the most common issue to be on the lookout for is a concussion.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a blow or jolt to the head that results in the brain moving suddenly within the skull.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) notes concussions are mistakenly thought to be limited to contact with the head, but any direct blow to the body that results in strong force transferred to the skull can cause a concussion.

While the majority of concussions appear with immediate symptoms, some individuals may seem fine after taking a blow to the head, only to develop issues hours later.

Did your budding football star take a hard hit during the game? Now’s the time to test your concussion identification skills.

Symptoms of a sports-related head injury

Recognizing a concussion can be difficult, and identification is one of the primary issues when it comes to dealing with children and traumatic brain injuries.

A traumatic brain injury can be mild, moderate, or severe, and, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), can present with any of the following symptoms: 

  • Momentary loss of consciousness
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Blurred vision
  • Feeling tired
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Bad taste in the mouth
  • Mood changes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Trouble with memory, concentration, thinking, or focus

Symptoms will depend on how severe a traumatic brain injury is, and may also include, but are not limited to, vomiting, nausea, seizures, slurred speech, weakness or numbness in the limbs, and an inability to wake from sleep.

As a general rule, any symptoms that start out mildly, but worsen over time, may be an indicator the head injury is more severe than originally thought.

If your child’s behavior is setting off warning bells in your head, immediately seek professional medical treatment, and do not allow him or her to return to the activity they were involved in.

Do not administer any medications, or allow the child to sleep until he or she has been evaluated.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a traumatic brain injury can cause permanent brain damage, disability, and even death, so don’t delay in seeking care.

Girls playing soccer
Among high school girls, statistics say soccer is the riskiest sport when it comes to traumatic brain injuries. (Photo by Denise Andreus)

Risk of traumatic brain injuries among children

Children are notoriously accident prone, and that makes them automatically at high-risk for sports-related injuries of any kind.

When it comes to traumatic brain injuries, however, there are some risk factors to be aware of.

The sport your child plays does have a lot to do with risk.  

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, high school boys are most likely to get TBI from football; for high school girls, the sport with the highest risk is soccer.  

Overall, the top five sports for traumatic brain injury in children are:

  1. bicycling
  2. football
  3. basketball
  4. playground activities
  5. soccer

These activities put children in large groups, or in situations, where hits and falls are seen as just a part of the game.

It might not seem like ethnicity could have any role in traumatic brain injury, but it does.

It’s not that Hispanic children are more or less likely than non-Hispanic whites to experience concussions or TBI, but they are more likely to have prolonged, impaired recoveries post-injury.

Research published in the journal Pediatrics in 2013 noted that Hispanic children “report larger and long-term reductions in their quality of life, participation in activities, communication, and self-care abilities” after traumatic brain injury, compared to non-Hispanic white children.

Researchers suspect the disparity has to do with communication barriers and self-care after a TBI occurs.

Preventing sports-related injuries in children

You’re probably not going to convince your child to never play his or her favorite sport again, so the best thing you can do is brush up on ways to prevent concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

The CDC makes the following recommendations for parents and coaches to keep kids safe from TBIs while they do what they love:

  • Make sure rules are enforced during games that promote sportsmanship, and punish illegal hits, strikes, and deliberate injuring of opposing team members.
  • Talk to kids about the importance of reporting concussion symptoms, and make sure they are familiar with the warning signs and risks.
  • Make sure all recommended safety equipment is worn during actual game time, and during practice.
  • Make sure new guidelines are known and enforced, especially in sports with minimal safety equipment. U.S. Club Soccer, for example, has now issued safety standards that forbid heading (hitting the ball with the head) for children 10 years old and younger.

Oh, wait! What about helmets? Don’t they prevent concussions? Well, not exactly.

The CDC notes there is no “concussion-proof” helmet; helmets are designed to keep the skull intact.

While they can lessen the force of an impact and are still a vital piece of safety equipment, they are not the cure-all most parents would believe.

Ultimately, making sure your child speaks up when a blow to the head happens in one of the most important ways to make sure a traumatic brain injury does not go unnoticed.

Children often don’t want to disappoint parents or coaches, and will hide symptoms of sports-related head injury.

The CDC report that as many as 7 out of 10 young athletes will continue playing even if experiencing symptoms of a concussion, and if a child thinks a competition is important, they are less likely to report symptoms if they occur.

It’s important for children to understand that their health and well-being trumps any victory on the playing field.

As an adult, the message you convey about sports can one day make a life-and-death difference to your son or daughter.

Make sure they know how important it is for them to speak up if they are not feeling well, no matter how “important” the game.  No dream of athletic glory is worth a child’s health.

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