Understanding concussions and how they’re managed

Understanding concussions and how they’re managed

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Understanding concussions and how they’re managed

By

Scott Sailor, president of National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

Scott Sailor, president of National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is this month’s column from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.

In a few days, eager football fans will fill Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., for Super Bowl 50. As the players compete in their quest for the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy, their sports medicine teams will be on the lookout for injuries.

This past season, in an effort to protect its players, the NFL instituted third-party medical timeouts, which allow athletic trainers (ATs) to stop the game if they suspect a player has sustained a concussion. Every NFL team employs athletic trainers on the sidelines to provide immediate medical care for athletes, but they also have ATs in the press box tasked with watching carefully for any potential injuries. From their elevated vantage point, these athletic trainers, known as injury “spotters,” identify players who appear disoriented or show other concussion symptoms. This is just one of the many new policies the NFL enacted to better protect players from head injuries.

While not all sports employ ATs as injury spotters like the NFL does, sports at all levels are paying more attention to concussions, their possible long-term effects and the care an athlete receives after injury. For example, youth football leagues that adopted USA Football’s Heads Up Football program saw a significant reduction in concussions during practices and games.

Much more than a “ding” or “getting your bell rung,” a concussion is a traumatic brain injury resulting from the brain moving quickly back and forth inside the skull. It’s estimated that each year up to 3.8 million sport-related concussions occur, with females sustaining the injury more frequently than males. Also, sport-related concussions comprise 58 percent of all emergency room visits for children ages 8 to 13.

While contact and collision sport athletes are at the greatest risk of concussion, any athlete in any sport can sustain a concussion. When a head injury occurs, the first step is getting appropriate medical care.

It is important that everyone involved in sports – from athletes to coaches to parents be aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion:

  • Repeated vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to recognize people or places
  • Worsening headache
  • Seizures
  • Loss of alertness
  • Balance problems
  • Dizziness
  • Increasing confusion or irritability
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Unusual changes in behavior
  • Being bothered by light or noise
  • Slow reaction time
  • Sleep problems

While loss of consciousness is a symptom, it’s not a given — as athletes often suffer concussions without losing consciousness. It’s also important to know that concussion symptoms can be slow to develop, sometimes occurring even hours after the initial impact.

A female athlete waits to see a neurologist after sustaining a concussion (Photo: USA TODAY High School Sports)

A female athlete waits to see a neurologist after sustaining a concussion (Photo: USA TODAY High School Sports)

If you think you or a fellow athlete has sustained a concussion, the first thing to do is tell a coach, parent or athletic trainer. You will need to be removed from play and evaluated by a health care provider with experience in identifying and treating concussions. If a concussion has occurred, only a health care professional with concussion knowledge and experience, such as an athletic trainer or physician, can determine when it is safe to return to play, but it should never be on the day of your injury.

When recovering from a concussion, the best course of action is rest. This includes keeping a regular sleep schedule and avoiding activities that make the concussion symptoms worse. Each concussion is unique, so there isn’t a set recovery time. Be patient, and allow yourself the time to properly heal. Even after your health care provider gives the go-ahead to resume play, take things slow at first. Your athletic trainer can help you return at a safe pace, gradually building up to full exertion.

This recovery process might seem slow, but it’s important. Sustaining a second head injury while still healing from the first can result in second impact syndrome—rapid swelling of the brain that can be catastrophic.

While it’s impossible to completely eliminate the potential for head injuries in sports, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. In addition to understanding the signs and symptoms, it’s important to use the correct safety equipment for your sport. Make sure your gear, including your helmet, is designed for the sport you’re playing and is properly fitted to decrease the risk of a concussion. Follow the safety rules of the sport and use proper technique. For example, in football, this means learning the proper way to tackle to reduce your risk of head and neck injuries. Every sport has specific techniques in place designed for your protection, so it’s important to follow those recommendations.

We still have a lot to learn about concussions and their long-term effects, and new research is constantly being conducted. If you or a parent has questions regarding concussion prevention or management, the most important thing you can do is contact your athletic trainer or other health care professional for more information. Knowledge is power and it’s the easiest way to help you play smart, play safe and stay in the game.

To help educate the public on the signs, symptoms and management of concussions, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association has created a concussion handout.

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