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Student concussions: What to consider before signing up
Mark Kishel
Mark Kishel is senior clinical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. - photo by File photo

The new school year is here, which means students are also playing fall sports. As parents consider the various athletic opportunities available to their kids, one of the big questions is, “How safe is it?”

Concussions have received a great deal of attention over the past few years for the potential effects they impose on student athletes, and rightfully so. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young children and teens are more likely to sustain a concussion and take longer to recover than adults. Here are some factors to consider before you sign up for the new season.

Understanding concussions

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that results in a temporary loss of normal brain function. Concussions are triggered by an impact that causes the head to move quickly and stop, causing the brain to hit against the inner side of the skull. This can bruise or otherwise injure the brain. Once thought of as a minor injury, concussions are now handled with delicate care because of research proving they are more than minor “dings” to the head.

While many people assume that concussions involve a loss of consciousness, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that only 10 percent of people diagnosed with this injury will be “knocked out.” The most-common symptoms are confusion (being dazed), headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurry vision, delayed responses to questions and short-term memory loss. Most athletes experience these symptoms shortly after suffering a concussion, but the full effect of the injury may take longer to notice. Avoiding further injury after a concussion is key to recovery and the prevention of long-term injuries, so it’s important to know your school’s safety procedures. Subsequent concussions can further damage the brain, especially if they occur during recovery. Recovery can take days, weeks or months.
Identifying at-risk sports

If you’re considering which sports your children should participate in, it’s helpful to know how common concussions are for each activity. Football gains the most headlines, but other sports pose risks as well. According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the highest rates of sports concussions among males occur in football (60 percent), lacrosse (30 percent), soccer (17 percent) and wrestling (17 percent). For female student athletes, soccer (35 percent), lacrosse (20 percent), basketball (16 percent) and softball (11 percent) pose the highest risk. While helmets can absorb trauma to the skull and prevent fractures or severe brain trauma, they will not prevent a concussion.

Asking the right questions

Before committing to a sport, ask your school for information about its general policy in dealing with concussions. What procedures are used to clear athletes? What concussion-management system is used?

The Georgia High School Association mandates that every school have a concussion-management program. It also directs coaching staffs to keep athletes on the sidelines until they are cleared by a physician for physical activity. Here are some other questions to ask coaches and administrators:

• Are coaches, students and referees required to take a concussion-education course and training program?

• What techniques do coaches use to encourage head safety, and are they repeated periodically?  

• How often do practices involve live contact?  

• Who is responsible for the recognition and response to suspected concussions during practice and games? Are medical professionals or athletic trainers in attendance?

• What is the school’s policy for coaches informing parents of a student who suffers a concussion?

Many schools have instituted the Immediate Post-concussive Assessment and Cognitive Testing, or ImPACT, exam, which measures brain functions that are affected by concussions. Typically, each athlete takes the test before the season starts, allowing an individual standard assessment for doctors to compare with post-injury ImPACT tests. Follow up with your child’s physician is recommended.  

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