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Kids' Concussions: What You Should Know

It was a cheerleading stunt Ariana Pires had done countless times before—only this time, everything was different. “When they pushed me up into the air,” says the 16-year-old high school junior from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, “I was supposed to go up straight on one leg. But instead, I kind of went to the side, lost my balance, and fell. And no one caught me.”

Ariana landed on her head—from 10 feet off the ground. “I didn't lose conscious­ness,” she says. “But I do remember the pain, and being a little bit confused, and when my coach helped me up I was really dizzy, like I could barely walk.”

She felt better that night, Ariana says, and a few days later she was able to return to practice. That, it turned out, was a mistake. “I fell again, and this time I kind of caught myself, but my head hit my shoulder really hard as I came down.”

A serious problem

It was later determined that Ariana had suffered two concussions in a row, which might be no surprise to anyone with a son or daughter who plays sports.

Each year, thousands of children—from grade-school kids who crash their bikes to teenage athletes who collide in midair— hit their heads hard enough to sustain a concussion. And each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that number goes up.

Still, experts say, most concussions are not life-threatening. While every concus­sion is serious, most kids eventually get better with treatment, says Neha Raukar, M.D., a sports medicine physician and concussions specialist with Brown University. However, she emphasizes,“You have to take the time to recover. If you don't, and then you sustain another concussion—that's where your symptoms can become much worse, and you can really get into trouble.”

Taking time to recover

In the days that followed her first fall, Ariana remembers “feeling foggy” and “tired all the time.” Those symptoms grew worse after her second spill, and a full month later she still couldn't sit through an entire day of school.

Ariana says she is getting better, and she hopes to one day be cheering again. “Hopefully by football season. I'll just have to see.”

What Parents Can Do

Suspect your child might have a concussion? Follow these four steps:

  1. Take them out of the game.
    A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury, so if there's any question at all, pull them to the sideline. Your child doesn't have to be knocked out—or even have trouble walking—to have a concussion. The signs can be more subtle. Only about 10% of people with concussions lose consciousness.
  2. Look for signs and symptoms.
    Concussion symptoms vary and may take up to 24 hours to become apparent. Possible signs and symptoms include a dazed look, confusion, dizziness, forget­fulness, headaches, nausea, tiredness, irritability, and depression. “Fogginess” is common, as is sensitivity to light or noise.
  3. See your doctor.
    If a concussion is suspected, it's important that your child see a healthcare professional right away. If serious symptoms are immediately obvious, head for the emergency room.
  4. Don't rush.
    The latest research suggests that concussion treatment should be customized according to symptoms. While many of those who suffer a concussion miss school, others return to class right away. The key: Listen to your child's doctor, and know that concussions don't heal overnight.

Consider Concussion Baseline Testing

In Rhode Island, student athletes are encouraged to have concussion baseline testing by a trained healthcare professional. This pre-season exam is used to assess an athlete’s balance and brain function as well as look for symptoms of concussions.

If an athlete receives a concussion during the season, they would take the exam again, and their results would be compared to the baseline test. This helps healthcare professionals identify the effects of the concussion and make more informed decisions. Learn more in these FAQs.