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Concussions: Is it safe for kids to play contact sports?

July 26, 2018 | UCI Health
boy with concussion at doctor's

Concussions among athletes are big news these days. There’s so much information on the subject, parents may have a hard time digesting it all and deciding whether their kids should participate in sports.

Christopher Kroner, MD, MPH, a UCI Health family medicine physician who specializes in sports medicine and injury, sorts out the issue.

What is a concussion?

“A concussion is an impact to the head or spine where the force is absorbed by the brain,” Kroner explains. “Some amount of brain dysfunction occurs. Because it can affect any part of the brain, the symptoms are extremely variable, and we’re not sure why everyone has a slightly different experience.”

Athletic trainers or physicians use a long checklist of symptoms to evaluate athletes for concussions, but the most common signs are:

  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Feeling “foggy” or having difficulty thinking
  • Blurry vision or problems with visual tracking
  • Fatigue

What if a concussion is suspected?

Any time a concussion is suspected, the athlete should be removed from play until he or she can be evaluated by trained medical staff, Kroner says.

If medical professionals determine that an athlete has suffered a concussion, resting the injured brain is the fastest way to recover, he says. Contrary to the myth that falling asleep after experiencing a concussion can lead to death, the best treatment is to get plenty of restful sleep and avoid intellectually or physically stimulating activity.

Athletes should wait until symptoms have mostly subsided before returning to school work and should not engage in physical activity until the symptoms are completely gone. They also should follow a return-to-play protocol that ramps up physical activity slowly — to ensure that the brain is fully recovered.

What are the long-term effects of a concussion?

News stories have largely focused on professional athletes in football, hockey and boxing who have developed neurological or psychological impairments later in life after suffering repeated concussions in their careers.

“A causal link is not as clear as some make it out to be,” Kroner says. “While it makes sense that repeated trauma will create long-term damage, the evidence is mixed when you compare the studies.”

However, a single concussion usually resolves itself within days to a week, with no long-term consequences. Nor does one incident require special testing or treatment unless symptoms persist, he says.

Can helmets protect against concussion?

Helmets can help reduce some traumatic brain and other injuries, such as fractures and damage to the eyes. They do distribute impact around the skull, but do not entirely prevent a concussion, which occurs when a jarring motion slams the brain into the skull.

The best protection is making sure the child receives sufficient training, is wearing appropriate gear for the specific sport, and knows the rules designed for player safety.

Should parents let children participate in sports?

Yes, says Kroner. The devastating health consequences of obesity should inspire parents to nurture their children’s interests in physical activity and sports, regardless of type.

While there is no such thing as an injury-free sport, some do have higher rates of injuries. Concussions are most common in boxing, football, hockey, soccer and lacrosse. In soccer and basketball, female athletes have higher rates of concussion than males.

“That said, rates of concussions and other significant brain injuries in any sport below the college level are very low compared to rates at the college, professional and elite levels,” Kroner says.

More important, he says, multiple studies have shown that adolescents who participate in competitive sports enjoy many benefits beyond better physical health.

“They have higher self-esteem, higher grades, lower risk of eating disorders, lower risk of depression, lower teen pregnancy rates and, for those in team sports, improved social interactions in other parts of their lives.”

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