Why are we so concerned about head injuries in childhood? 

Research has shown that children’s brains react differently than adult brains to head trauma so children may present with different symptoms than an adult and may show how it affects them differently as well.

Here are some common symptoms:

  • Difficulty with thinking skills, such as memory and attention
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability

What does this mean for a child: trouble reading and retaining what they read, having difficulty participating in a full day of school, becoming withdrawn and anxious.  More importantly, studies suggest that these symptoms might be long lasting.

Concussions in the news 

“I just got my bell rung” is a common refrain in football.  It is also a dangerous way to downplay symptoms and reports of concussions. There have been a lot of conversations about concussions in both mainstream and sports media the past few weeks given the injuries sustained by the starting quarterback of the Miami Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa, and rightfully so.  He sustained what appeared to be an obvious concussion (displayed at least 4 of the NFLs no-go signs while on the field) on Sunday only to return to the game after an “evaluation.”  He then played in the game on Thursday night and sustained a second concussion (within 4 days of the first raising alarms about the possibility of Second Impact Syndrome) forcing him to be taken from the playing field via stretcher.  While much as been made of NFL protocols and best practices for keeping NFL players safe, the conversation should actually start with keeping our youth athletes safe and changing the narrative from a young age.

“Why do I need to worry about concussions?  My child doesn’t play football.”

While the focus is on football and its connection to head injuries – rightfully so as it has the highest incidence of head injuries in sports – for kids it is not the only sport or activity with a high incidence of head injury. Did you know that studies show that football, ice hockey, soccer, bicycling and wrestling all have high numbers as well.  “There were a reported 6.2 million kids who had head injuries from 2000-2019, with girls having a higher overall increase than boys” according to research.

Prevention as a form of treatment

I am a huge proponent of “prevention as a form of treatment”, meaning prevention should be the focus.  While it may seem like concussions are not preventable that is not the case.  There are several ways to decrease the concussion risk for youth athletes:

  • Proper equipment- make sure your athlete has the right equipment AND it fits properly – also that they use it, mouthpieces don’t work if they aren’t in!  Helmets, chin straps should be properly sized and snapped on.
  • Avoidance – teach youth playing football to avoid leading with their heads.  Promote and train the “Heads up” approach to tacking and encourage it at all times.  Decrease full contract in practice to decrease risk.
  • Headers – should be avoided in young children playing soccer – under 10. In older ages headers should be limited to practice only. High school and above need to be trained in the proper technique and encouraged to use it.
  • Most importantly make sure to remove your athlete from the game/practice at the first sign of trouble.   We need to remove the stigma of reporting injuries in sports, especially when they can have lasting effects like concussions.

By starting at the youth sports level, we can help to change the culture and the narrative so that we are better able to prevent, recognize, treat, and minimize head injuries and their long-term impact on athletes at all levels.

One of the most important things is keeping youth in sports safe.

It’s important to understand what concussions are, what you can do to mitigate the risk of head injury and what to do if you suspect your athlete has sustained one. There are many excellent resources for coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves. There are also free courses regarding concussions for all of those involved in youth sports. I highly recommend that any parent, coach, athletic trainer, or medical personnel involved in youth sports seek out these free resources.  I have included links below.

Information about Second Impact Syndrome:

This is a very informative article from the Mayo Clinic about children and concussions

Free resource for anyone involved in youth sports – includes link to free courses

Importance of equipment and head injury statistics in youth sports

Here is an excellent in-depth article about prevention – to the extent concussions can be prevented in youth sports.

Dr. Shannon L Cabral, PT @2022.