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Summertime Sports Bring Concussions Posted: May 7th, 2010

By Rebecca Theim

Rebecca began her career as a daily newspaper reporter and also has worked in senior PR and communications roles.

Although warmer weather usually means an increase in outside recreational and sporting pursuits, those activities also put adults, teens and youngsters alike at risk of one of the most common injuries in the country--concussions.

Brain injuries are a contributing factor in almost one-third of all injury-related deaths in the United States. Each year, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury, about 75 percent of which are concussions or other mild brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Of those injured:

  • 52,000 die
  • 275,000 are hospitalized
  • 1.365 million, nearly 80 percent, are treated and released from an emergency department

What Is a Concussion?

A concussion is a type of brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that affects--usually temporarily--the brain's functions. Concussions also may occur if a person falls or is hit severely enough that the head and brain move quickly back and forth within the skull. Health care professionals may describe a concussion as a "mild" brain injury because they usually are not life-threatening, but sufferers who do not heed a concussion's potential severity are taking a serious risk.

Weekend warriors and collegiate and high school athletes who return to sporting or recreational pursuits before their brains have had a chance to recover put themselves at risk for a condition called "second impact syndrome," or a second concussion occurring soon after the first injury. Second impact syndrome can result in brain swelling, permanent brain damage, and even death.

Sports enthusiasts aren't the only ones at risk. Car accident victims often experience various forms of brain injuries and a 2005 CDC study found unintentional falls also cause more concussions in seniors.

Symptoms of a Concussion

According to the CDC, symptoms of a concussion usually fall into four categories:

  1. Thinking/Remembering: Symptoms include difficulty thinking clearly, feeling slowed down, difficulty concentrating and difficulty remembering new information
  2. Physical: Headache, nausea or vomiting (soon after the injury), difficulty balancing, dizziness, fuzzy or blurry vision, lack of energy and sensitivity to light or noise may be physical symptoms of a concussion
  3. Emotional/Mood: Symptoms may include irritability or sadness and nervousness or anxiety
  4. Sleep Disturbance: Symptoms include sleeping more or less than usual and trouble falling asleep

How to Respond to a Potential Concussion

If you suspect that someone has had a concussion:

  1. Remove the person from athletic play or sporting activities
  2. Have the individual evaluated by a health care professional. Traditional health insurance plans cover treatment for concussions. However, college health plans, often the cheapest health insurance option for young people, may exclude treatment for sports injuries
  3. Alert the individual's parents, guardian, spouse or significant other about the possibility of a concussion
  4. Do not allow the person to resume sports or recreational activity until he or she is cleared by an health care professional

When to Seek Immediate Medical Attention

Until the widely publicized death of British actress Natasha Richardson, after a March 2009 fall during a skiing lesson, few adults realized that they could be at risk of serious complications from concussion. In rare situations like Richardson's, a dangerous blood clot can form on the brain, squeezing a portion of the brain against the skull and irreparably damaging the delicate tissue. Anyone who experiences the following danger signs after a bump or blow to the head should immediately visit an emergency room:

  • Worsening and/or continuing headache
  • Weakness, numbness or decreased coordination
  • Repeated vomiting or severe nausea
  • Slurred speech

Signs loved ones should look for include:

  • Severe drowsiness, loss of consciousness or an ability to wake the person
  • One pupil being dilated
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Memory loss, inability to recognize people or places, confusion, restlessness or agitation
  • In the case of children: continuous crying, refusal to eat or nurse

How to Prevent Concussions

The CDC advises that everyone should wear a seat belt whenever in a motor vehicle. Additionally, wear a helmet and make sure children wear helmets when:

  • Riding a bike, motorcycle, snowmobile, scooter or all-terrain vehicle
  • Playing contact sports
  • Using in-line skates or skateboards
  • Batting and running bases in baseball or softball
  • Horseback riding
  • Skiing or snowboarding

You should be sure that your child's sporting team enforces the "no hits to the head" rule and requires approved and property fitted protective equipment.

The CDC also recommends that parents install window guards and use safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs to make homes safer for children.

For seniors, homes safety can be increased by:

  • Removing tripping hazards from floors
  • Placing non-slip bath mats and installing grab bars in bathtubs and showers
  • Installing stairway handrails
  • Adding lighting in homes to improve visibility

Post-Concussion Care

Although most people recover fully after a concussion, recuperation may be quicker if the individual:

  • Gets plenty of sleep at night, and rest during the day
  • Avoids physically demanding activities
  • Returns to work or school gradually
  • Avoids alcohol and drugs not prescribed by a physician

Timely treatment and appropriate care is important in the successful treatment of concussions. A health care professional can play an important role in improving outcomes through early diagnosis, treatment, appropriate referrals and professional follow-up care.