Stacy’s son John, 12, is an active kid who loves sports. And he’s been known to get a bruise or two while kicking a ball around. “He wants to play with everything he’s got, and he’s always getting hurt,” says Stacy.
During a hockey game a few months ago, John collided heavily with another player on the ice. This time, he got more than a bump on the head. He was dizzy and nauseous. A trip to the hospital confirmed it: John had a concussion, a mild traumatic injury to the brain. John has since recovered, but his dizziness and headache lasted almost a week and certainly put a scare into his folks. “Anything to do with the brain, I really worry about,” says Stacy.
Concussions have long been a common injury in kids. But as new information about the brain is uncovered, some of the age-old myths about concussions are being turned on their head.
That’s the most frequent cause of concussion, says Dr. Laura Purcell, a pediatrician who practises emergency medicine and sport medicine at London, Ont.’s Health Sciences Centre and in her clinic, the Pediatric Sport and Injury Clinic, but kids can also get hurt playing sports or they can fall and smack their heads on a hard surface. “Sometimes hits to the face can result in a concussion and, less commonly, blows to anywhere on the body, particularly if there’s a lot of force and the head is shaken,” she adds.
Not so, says Dr. Dave Ellemberg, a neuropsychologist at Université de Montréal who conducted a five-year study of concussions in children. “That’s what most people still think.” In fact, most concussions don’t cause children to black out—or if they do, not for more than a few seconds. Rather, your child may see light flashes after the impact or have ringing or buzzing in the ears. She may be confused, dizzy, nauseous, vomiting, sleepy or complaining of a headache. If she has any of these symptoms, she should see a doctor immediately.
“Sleep is very, very important for recovery,” says Dr. Purcell. Let your child rest but watch him closely for the next 24 – 48 hours. If he vomits repeatedly, won’t wake up like he usually does or his headache becomes severe, bring him back to the emergency department immediately.
Even with a mild concussion, kids can have symptoms such as headache, dizziness, lethargy or irritability for a week or more. Dr. Ellemberg’s research suggests that the impact on attention and information processing may last for up to a year. The best medicine is rest, both physically and mentally — which means no studying, television, computer or gaming (quiet activities such as drawing and leisure reading are fine). And no school for up to a week. “Better to have them out than in class and not able to work or pay attention,” says Dr. Ellemberg. “That will make things worse.”
It can, if your kid isn’t ready. If her brain’s not better, it’s much more susceptible to further injury. Plus, says Dr. Purcell, “because she hasn’t fully recovered, her reaction times are slower and her judgment is affected. So there’s a further risk for not just head injury, but any injury.” Concussion symptoms must be completely resolved before a child tries to return slowly to activity, and as long as symptoms do not reappear and the child has been medically cleared by her doctor, your child can return to physical play.
Lisa Bendall is a Toronto-based writer whose daughter recovered from a mild concussion one winter after a misadventure with a patch of ice.