Protecting your young athletes brain

Child and Adolescent Health
High school soccer team celebrating.

Having children participate in sports can promote positive relationships, health and confidence. While there are many benefits to having children play sports, the goal is to have fun and stay safe. Kids and head injuries can be a scary combination, but with proper protocols in place, we can help protect our kids.

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) that can be caused by a trauma or shaking motion of the head. Sometimes, a head injury can occur even if symptoms are not apparent immediately after the injury.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions occur each year in sports in the United States. Symptoms after a head injury can range from a mild headache, brain fog or even emotional changes and poor sleep.

There are many ways to help keep kids safe, including head injury protocols for athletes, using a properly fitting helmet, wearing a seat belt and encouraging kids, especially young athletes, to be honest about their symptoms.

Safely participating in sports

Mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI) can negatively affect a child's cognitive function, memory and overall brain health. Additionally, multiple or recurrent head injuries may increase the risk of long-term symptoms or complications, such as brain swelling or permanent damage to the brain.

Small changes like a properly fitted helmet can make a big impact for a child. "One of my favorite ways to ensure children have a properly fitting helmet is to ask them to nod up and down, or even rock out to their favorite song before practice, if the helmet stays in place, you know that it in a good position," says Annamarie Koller, DO, pediatric hospitalist, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of the Main Line Health and CHOP affiliation.

Signs and symptoms of a head injury

While some symptoms may be obvious, others can be more subtle and easily overlooked. Keep an eye out for:

  • Any changes in behavior, such as irritability or mood swings
  • Headaches, dizziness and balance problems
  • Difficulties with concentration, memory or confusion
  • Complaints of blurred vision or sensitivity to light or noise

There are many resources available to families, one being the CDC's HEADS UP Campaign:

The CDC’s HEADS UP campaign has information aimed at recognizing and treating young athletes who suffer from mild traumatic brain injury or concussion. The information can help caregivers, coaches, school professionals and health care providers.

Importance of proper protocols and policies

Enacting policies around head injuries or concussions can help keep kids safe. There are many resources surrounding kids' safety for returning to sports after a head injury.

There are three main steps to help keep athletes safe after a head injury:

  1. Immediately pull them out of play. When in doubt, pull them out.
  2. Seek medical attention.
  3. Allow adequate time for recovery.

Education is crucial for anyone taking care of young athletes. Caregivers, coaches and trainers should be aware of the signs and symptoms of mTBIs.Families should communicate with coaches and school officials to ensure that proper protocols are being followed during practices and games. By prioritizing the importance of proper concussion protocols and management, we can help our young athletes stay safe and continue to enjoy their favorite sports.

"Have a conversation with your child’s coach about what their head injury protocol is on the field," says Dr. Koller. Early detection and proper management are key to preventing further injury and ensuring the best recovery.

If a young athlete does have a head injury on the field, be sure to take not of some of the following details:

  1. What caused the injury (hit in the head, fell on the ground (turf or concrete)?
  2. Were they wearing a helmet or any head protection?
  3. Was there any loss of consciousness (passed out/knocked out) and if so, for how long?
  4. Any memory loss right after the injury?
  5. Any seizures right after the injury?
  6. Number of previous concussions (if any)?
  7. Any vomiting or nausea?
  8. Is the athlete sensitive to light or any blurred or double vision?

Tips for head injury prevention

Preventing mTBI or concussions in young athletes is crucial for their safety and wellbeing. Here are some helpful tips to reduce their risk:

Ensure proper equipment

Make sure your child is using the appropriate protective gear for their sport, such as helmets, mouthguards and padding. Properly fitted equipment can significantly reduce the impact of collisions and falls.

Teach proper technique

Help your child learn and practice proper techniques for their sport. This includes learning how to properly tackle, head the ball or handle contact situations. Coaches and trainers can also provide guidance on safe play.

Encourage communication

Teach your child to communicate with their teammates and coaches. If an athlete is hurt during play, make sure they feel safe speaking up about their symptoms.

Promote strength and conditioning

Strengthening the neck and core muscles can provide additional support and stability to the head and body, reducing the risk of concussions. Encourage your child to participate in strength and conditioning exercises appropriate for their age and sport.

Educate your child

Teach anyone caring for your child about the signs and symptoms of a head injury and the importance of reporting any head injuries to their coach, trainer or you as a parent. By raising awareness, your child can be an active participant in their own safety.

Importance of rest and recovery

After a mTBI or concussion, rest and recovery are essential for your young athlete's healing process. Taking the time to allow their brain to fully recover is crucial for their long-term health and wellbeing.

Resting the brain means limiting physical and cognitive activities that can worsen symptoms or delay recovery. This may look differently for each child but may include avoiding screens, bright lights and loud noises. School work may need to be modified or children may need to take breaks throughout the day. Working with your child’s health care provider and teacher is essential to maximize their recovery. And, of course, continuing good sleep hygiene at home to promote proper recovery.

It's also important to follow the advice of medical professionals and gradually reintroduce physical activity only when cleared by a healthcare provider. By prioritizing rest and recovery, you’re giving your child the best chance for a full and successful recovery, allowing them to safely return to their favorite sports in the future.

Next steps:

Meet Annamarie Koller, DO
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