Melissa Arca: Understand concussion, for your child’s sake

For the past few weeks, it’s been all about sports physicals. Young athletes flocking to their pediatricians to get clearance to play. And it’s wonderful to see so many kids active and involved in a sport they truly enjoy.

But things inevitably come to an awkward silence when I ask, “So, do you know what a concussion is?”

More often than not, I’m met by blank stares. And who can really blame them? Even with all the heightened awareness and media attention paid to recognizing and promptly treating concussions, accurately defining one is as nebulous as the condition itself.

There are still many misconceptions and myths surrounding concussions. And getting parents, coaches and kids to treat (i.e., sit it out and rest) a condition they cannot physically see can be quite the challenge.

So in an effort to take some of the guesswork out for parents, let’s clear up a few misconceptions about concussions:

Misconception: Concussions occur only in athletes who suffer loss of consciousness during an impact.

Fact: While loss of consciousness can occur with a head injury, in the majority of cases (by some estimates, upward of 95 percent), concussions occur without the player losing consciousness. So never judge the severity of a child’s head injury by whether he lost consciousness.

Misconception: If a player gets hit, we know right away if he or she has suffered a concussion.

Fact: It can take minutes, hours, days, or even weeks for symptoms of a concussion to appear in a young athlete. In fact, athletes under 18 years old are more likely to have a delayed onset of symptoms after a head injury, highlighting the importance of the idea of “when in doubt, sit it out.”

Misconception: It’s OK for players to get “dinged” (a.k.a., suffer a blow to the head and have a brief stunned state that lasts only a few minutes) and return back to play the same day or game.

Fact: Believe it or not, getting “dinged” is a sign that a young player has suffered a concussion and should not return to play for that same game or day. Re-evaluation in a few hours and within 24 hours is important to learn if other signs/symptoms have developed. This player should be medically cleared before returning to play.

Misconception: It’s a good thing my child doesn’t play football and is a girl. I don’t have to worry too much about concussions.

Fact: While football players do suffer the highest incidents of concussions, girls who play soccer rank third. And girls have been found to have higher incidences of concussions in comparison to boys playing the same sport. Any competitive sport runs the risk of concussion. So be in the know. Yes, even you, parents of cheerleaders.

Misconception: Well, it’s a good thing we have these fancy, expensive helmets. Don’t they prevent concussions?

Fact: Unfortunately, while proper-fitting helmets and protective gear can protect against some other serious injuries — think skull fractures — they cannot prevent concussions. Think of your child’s brain hitting the inside of their skull after a significant blow to the head. No helmet can protect against that.

What to look for

You might be asking: “Well, how will I know if my child has suffered a concussion?”

What to look for on the field, at home and at school:

•  Unable to respond appropriately to questions about the event. Is confused and has loss of memory.

•  Immediately dazed after injury, and has blank/vacant look on face. Is slow to get up following the injury.

•  Persistent headaches after the event.

•  Has vomiting, dizziness, and/or visual changes after the injury.

•  Has mental “fogginess,” seems slower than usual and has difficulty concentrating.

• May exhibit unusual emotional instability, from uncontrollable episodes of laughing to crying.

•  Loss of consciousness and amnesia are some of the more obvious symptoms.

• Disruption in sleep – sleeping less (insomnia) or more.

If you’re ever in doubt about your child’s condition in regard to a concussion, always err on the side of caution. Sit the player out and have him or her observed for the next 24 hours. Getting medical clearance after a significant blow to the head is always a good idea.

And remember that rest until medically cleared means both physical and mental rest. So sitting it out means lightening your child’s homework load, decreasing the amount of time spent on electronics and making sure he or she gets plenty of sleep in addition to taking a break from the sport.

Though we cannot see our kids’ brains when they get bruised or inflamed, that is exactly what is going on with a concussion. And just like you would make sure your child rested and took care of a swollen, sprained ankle until it healed, so too you should do for a concussion.

Stakes are quite higher and the damage longer lasting if we don’t.