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Student Athlete Concussions: What To Watch For

March 03, 2022

For parents of student athletes, few injuries are as frightening as a concussion. This is especially true because, unlike broken bones or sprained ankles, it can be difficult to know when a concussion has happened. Know which symptoms to watch for can help you spot lingering signs of a concussion. 

Kids Must Be Honest 

Sometimes children will sustain an injury to the head and come off the field or court knowing they have a headache or feel dizzy. But they won't admit it to the sports medicine physician or athletic trainer because they want to keep playing. 

When it comes to diagnosing student athletes with a concussion, one of the biggest challenges that physicians face is making sure athletes are honest about what happened. Even when a sports medicine physician is working on the sidelines of a football game, they won’t always see every hit, so they have to rely on athletes to tell them what happened. 

Since the only way to know for sure if an athlete is having these symptoms is if they tell someone, it can be hard to get an accurate diagnosis. 

Checking for Concussion on the Field 

When attempting to determine if an athlete has a concussion, physicians use a diagnostic test called the sport concussion assessment tool (SCAT5). The SCAT5 involves asking a person who may have a concussion a series of questions, then tallying up a score based on their responses. SCAT5 questions relate to specific symptoms, including: 

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Feeling mentally foggy

  • Difficulty focusing and/or concentrating

  • Nausea/vomiting 

A downside of the SCAT5 is that it’s not always useful unless you know an athlete’s baseline score, which a sports medicine physician might not have on hand when assessing a possible concussion diagnosis on the field. 

What Should Parents Watch for 

If a physician tentatively diagnoses your student athlete with a concussion, they’ll ask you to monitor the situation at home. This means watching for symptoms such as: 

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Feeling “out of it”

  • Feeling “slow”

  • Balance issues

  • Blurred vision

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Sleeping more or less than usual

  • Difficulty focusing in the classroom

  • Excessive irritability 

More worrisome signs and symptoms include:

  • Altered mental status

  • Slurred speech

  • Losing consciousness

  • Repeated vomiting that can’t be stopped 

These symptoms typically show up within the first six to 12 hours after an injury. If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, take them to the emergency room as soon as possible. 

How Are Concussions Different for Children? 

A child’s concussion can be different from those for adults because children’s brains are still developing until about age 25. A developing brain is more susceptible to trauma, so concussed children are at higher risk of long-term cognitive deficits than adults. 

If you sustain repeated head injuries when you’re younger and then experience one as an adult, you may be at greater risk of cognitive issues such as problems with memory and concentration. 

What Happens if a Concussion Goes Untreated? 

Instead of focusing on treating a concussion, physicians instead treat the symptoms. When a concussion is mild, any brain swelling generally goes away on its own, so treatment is a matter of managing headaches and nausea with medication until they resolve. About 99 percent of people who experience a concussion feel better within a month of injury.

Any time a student athlete sustains a concussion, parents and coaches should take the injury seriously. Children should be evaluated within a few days of the injury — and before returning to contact sports — by a healthcare provider, whether it's their pediatrician, their family doctor or a sports medicine physician.

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