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Heads First

For children of all ages, staying active is part of a healthy lifestyle while developing social, emotional, and physical skills, but there are risks.

Each year, about 135,000 children ages 5 to 18 are seen in emergency rooms for sports and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries such as concussions. Concussions in the ranks of professional and college athletics have become a familiar headline in news media. However, it is important to recognize that concussions can occur at any level, and during any physical activity such as soccer, gymnastics, cheerleading, and even on the playground. In fact, children and teens are more likely to get a concussion because of weaker shoulder and neck muscles. What’s more, kids can take longer to recover than adults. Brain development in children begins in the womb and continues into a child’s teen years. Traumatic events to the brain such as concussions can disrupt this development causing long-term physical and mental health problems. The good news is that if properly treated, the majority of children will fully recover.

Most concussions can be prevented by taking relatively simple steps: ensuring that children follow basic rules for safety and specific rules of the sport; encouraging children to practice good sportsmanship; and making sure children wear the right protective equipment, such as a helmet, for each type of activity.

Just as crucial as preventing concussions from happening is preventing further damage by properly handling a concussion. The first step is being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion. These include headaches, blurry vision, mood changes, sensitivity to light and/or noise, and trouble concentrating or remembering. Be aware that it may take minutes, hours, or even days for symptoms to be seen. It’s important to note that a concussion can occur without a loss of consciousness.

If you suspect your child has a concussion, contact your pediatrician or other health care professional experienced in evaluating and treating concussions. A concussed brain most importantly needs time to heal. Physical activities and interests requiring concentration (like reading, watching television, playing video games) should be limited and gradually resumed under the guidance of a physician. It is important to inform your child’s teachers, school nurse, coach, and others about the concussion and develop a plan to limit physical and cognitive activities until your child has fully recovered. This may include allowing extra time for tests and a quiet location for homework. Recovery may result in temporary lifestyle changes. Be sure to talk with your child often about any potential feelings of frustration, sadness and isolation as a result of having to limit normal activities.

Beginning this month, Virginia public schools will be required to educate parents, student-athletes, all staff, and volunteers on the health implications of concussions. In addition, public schools will be directed to remove student athletes with a suspected concussion from play until cleared by a health care professional.

Heather Board is a mother of two and lives in Richmond with her family. She has a master’s in public health and has worked in the field of injury prevention since 2001.

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