There are a lot of stories in the news about NFL players suffering from long-term brain damage due to concussions, but how often do you hear about a high school cheerleader who falls from the top of a pyramid? Or a middle school hockey player who gets slammed against the rink? While these school-aged athletes aren’t professionals, their concussions can result in equally life-altering damage. In fact, because the brain doesn’t fully mature until at least the mid-20s, any damage during its development can have a significant impact on cognition and day-to-day functioning.
According to one study of the 1.6 to 3.8 million sport-related concussions that occur in the United States each year, around 250,000 are due to high school football alone. In fact, between four and 20 percent of players will sustain a concussion in a single season! The second most dangerous sport? Girls’ soccer. But there are plenty of other school sports that are known for their concussion rates. Some others with high concussion rates include boys’ wrestling, girls’ basketball, boys’ ice hockey and boys’ lacrosse.
What Is a Concussion?
The short answer is that a concussion is an injury to the brain that causes temporary loss of brain function. In most sports-related cases, there are no physical signs of trauma and the person doesn’t lose consciousness.
The more technical answer is that a concussion is the result of the brain, which is normally cushioned by spinal fluid, hitting against the inside of the skull. This can cause internal bruising of the brain, torn blood vessels, pulled nerve fibers and microscopic damage to brain cells. In severe cases, the brain can swell enough to cause a stroke.
Effects on the Brain
While one concussion doesn’t typically do permanent damage, repeated concussions (especially in close succession) can.
There can be immediate or delayed long-term neurological impairments in memory, problem solving, processing speed, planning and attention.
A 2011 study published in “Neurosurgery” reported that high school football players who suffered two more concussions reported mental problems at much higher rates than other athletes, including headaches, dizziness and sleeping issues. The authors of the study refer to these symptoms as “neural precursors.” In other words, consider yourself warned that the brain is not on a healthy track.
Symptoms to Watch for
Some of the most common symptoms include:
• an inability to remember the immediate past (before or after the injury)
• delayed reflexes
• impaired judgment
• slurred speech
• impaired balance
• decreased coordination
• ringing in the ears
• sleep disruptions
• blurred vision
• sensitivity to light
• loss of smell or taste
• difficulty concentrating
After a Concussion
If you know (or even suspect) that your child has experienced some cognitive changes due to a concussion, there are scientifically proven brain training programs that can help.
Also known as “cognitive skills training,” intensive, one-on-one brain training forces the brain to better utilize or grow more synapses (the pathways between neurons). By reorganizing how the brain relays signals between cells, you can strengthen the cognitive skills that were weakened by the injury (or illness). These brain skills are what we use to focus, understand, plan, think, prioritize, remember, visualize and solve problems.
Just as conditioning strengthens the body of an athlete, cognitive skills training strengthens their brain.
What to Do Now
1. Check the condition of your child’s protective gear (helmet shells and cages for football, lacrosse and hockey) and make sure it fits properly.
2. Take your athlete to a local brain training center for an initial cognitive skills assessment to provide a unique baseline against which they can measure the results of future post-concussion tests.
3. Ensure that your child’s coach is aware of – and following – the safest practices for suspected concussions (such as a required waiting period before putting a player back in the game).
Most importantly, talk to your athlete about concussions and the long-term risks associated with repeated head injuries. It’s understandable that they’ll be eager to get back into the game, practice or cheer, but even a small time-out can make a big difference in the long run.