The term concussion might make you think of someone knocked unconscious while playing sports. But concussions — temporary disruptions of brain function — can happen with any head injury, often without a loss of consciousness.
And while we often hear about head injuries in athletes, most concussions happen off the playing field — in car and bicycle accidents, in fights, and even minor falls.
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury. The brain is made of soft tissue and is cushioned by spinal fluid. It is encased in the hard, protective skull. The brain can move around inside the skull and even bang against it. If the brain bangs against the skull — for example, due to a fall on a playground or a whiplash-type of injury — blood vessels can be torn and the nerves inside the brain can be injured. These injuries can cause a concussion.
Anyone who has a head injury should be watched closely for signs of a concussion, even if the person feels OK. An undiagnosed concussion can put someone at risk for brain damage and even disability. So anyone who has any symptom of a concussion should be examined right away by a doctor.
Sports-related concussions are receiving increased attention. Doctors now recommend these steps after a suspected concussion:
Kids who get concussions usually recover within a week or two without lasting health problems by following certain precautions and taking a break from sports and other activities that make symptoms worse.
Someone with a concussion may be knocked unconscious, but this doesn't happen in every case. In fact, a brief loss of consciousness or "blacking out" doesn't mean a concussion is any more or less serious than one where a person didn't black out.
If your child might have had a concussion, go to the emergency room if he or she has any of these symptoms:
Call your doctor right away to report other problems, such as vomiting, dizziness, headache, or trouble concentrating. Then you can get advice on what to do next. For milder symptoms, the doctor may recommend rest and ask you to watch your child closely for changes, such as a headache that gets worse.
Symptoms of a concussion don't always show up right away, and can develop within 24 to 72 hours after an injury. Young children usually have the same physical symptoms as older kids and adults, but cognitive and emotional symptoms (such as irritability and frustration) can appear later, be harder to notice, and last longer. Sleep-related issues are more common in teens.
Though most kids recover quickly from concussions, some symptoms — including memory loss, headaches, and problems with concentration— may linger for several weeks or months. It's important to watch for these symptoms and contact your doctor if they last. Often, in these cases, children need further evaluation and treatment.
To diagnose a concussion, the doctor will ask about how and when the head injury happened, and about your child's symptoms. The doctor also may ask basic questions to test your child's consciousness, memory, and concentration ("Who are you?"/"Where are you?"/"What day is it?").
The doctor also will do a physical exam and focus on the nervous system by testing balance, coordination, nerve function, and reflexes. Sometimes a computed tomography (CAT scan or CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan will be done to rule out internal bleeding or other problems from the injury.
Some kids who have head injuries from playing organized sports are examined by a coach or athletic trainer immediately after they're injured. This is known as sideline concussion testing because it might happen on the sidelines during a game. Sideline testing is common in schools and sports leagues. By watching a player's behavior and doing a few simple tests, a trained person can see if immediate medical care is needed.
Lots of schools or sports leagues use computerized programs that test players at the start of a sports season to measure their normal brain function and ability to process information. These tests are called baseline concussion tests. After a possible injury, sideline test results are compared with baseline test results to help doctors determine if there's been a change in brain function and to help make a diagnosis.
Because each concussion is unique, symptoms can differ in severity. For this reason, treatment depends on a child's particular condition and situation.
If a concussion is not serious enough to require hospitalization, a doctor will give instructions on home care. This includes watching the child closely for the first 24 to 72 hours after the injury. It is not necessary to wake the child up while he or she is sleeping to check for symptoms.
If a child has a headache that gets worse quickly, becomes increasingly confused, or has other symptoms (such as continued vomiting), it may mean there is a more serious problem. Call the doctor if your child has any of these symptoms.
Otherwise, home care for a concussion may include:
Kids with concussions also should avoid bright lights and loud noises, which can make symptoms worse. While they have symptoms, teens should take time off from work and not drive, operate heavy machinery, or do any other activities that require quick decisions and reactions.
Healthy kids usually can return to their normal activities within a few weeks, but each situation is different. The doctor will monitor your child closely to make sure that recovery is going well, and might recommend acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other aspirin-free medicines for headaches. Pain medicines can hide symptoms, though, so kids should not return to normal activities until they no longer need to take them.
Be sure to get the OK from the doctor before your child returns to sports or other physical activities. Sometimes kids feel better even though their thinking, behavior, and/or balance have not yet returned to normal.
Even if your child pleads that he or she feels fine or a competitive coach or school official urges you to go against medical instructions, it's essential to wait until the doctor has said it's safe to return to normal activities. To protect kids and remove coaches from the decision-making process, almost every state has rules about when kids with concussions can start playing sports again.
It's very important for anyone with a concussion to heal completely before doing anything that could lead to another concussion. Hurrying back to sports and other physical activities increases the risk of a condition called second-impact syndrome, which can happen as a result of a second head injury. Although very rare, second impact syndrome can cause lasting brain damage and even death.
All kids should wear properly fitting, appropriate headgear and safety equipment when playing contact sports or biking, rollerblading, skateboarding, snowboarding, or skiing. Nothing can prevent every concussion, but safety gear has been shown to help protect against severe head trauma.
Childproofing your home will go a long way toward keeping an infant or toddler safe from concussions and other injuries. Babies reach, grasp, roll, sit, crawl, pull up, "cruise" along furniture, and walk. Toddlers may pull themselves up using table legs; they'll use bureaus and dressers as jungle gyms; they'll reach for whatever they can see. All of these activities can result in a head injury that leads to a concussion. Be sure your child has a safe place to play and explore, and never leave a baby or toddler unattended.
People are much more likely to sustain a concussion if they've had one before, so prevention is even more important following a head injury. Evidence shows that repeated concussions can result in lasting brain damage, even when the injuries happen months or years apart.
Concussions are serious injuries that can become even more serious if kids don't get the time and rest needed to heal them completely. Safety precautions can help prevent concussions, and following a doctor's advice can minimize their effects if they do happen.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, and Todd A. Maugans, MD
Date reviewed: March 2015
|National SAFE KIDS Campaign The National SAFE KIDS Campaign offers information about car seats, crib safety, fact sheets, and links to other health- and safety-oriented sites.|
|U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) This federal agency collects information about consumer goods and issues recalls on unsafe or dangerous products.|
|Brain Injury Association The mission of this group is to create a better future through brain injury prevention, research, education, and advocacy. Call: (800) 444-6443|
|National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) The website of NCIPC contains a variety of injury prevention information.|
|American College of Sports Medicine This site has tips on staying safe while playing sports and exercising.|
|National Athletic Trainers' Association This site contains information on certified athletic trainers and tips on preventing and healing sports injuries.|
|American Academy of Family Physicians This site, operated by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), provides information on family physicians and health care, a directory of family physicians, and resources on health conditions.|
|American Sports Medicine Institute The mission of ASMI is to improve the understanding, prevention and treatment of sports-related injuries through research and education.|
|First Aid: Falls Although most result in mild bumps and bruises, some falls can cause serious injuries that need medical attention.|
|First Aid: Head Injuries Learn about the different types of head injuries, and find out what to do if your child is seriously injuried.|
|Head Injuries Head injuries fall into two categories: external and internal. Learn more about both kinds, how to prevent them, and what to do if your child is injured.|
|Playground Safety Following these safety guidelines can make neighborhood playgrounds entertaining and safe for your kids.|
|Babysitting: Dealing With a Head Injury What should you do if a child you're babysitting has a head injury? Our tips can help you be prepared.|
|Concussions: What Do You Know? (Quiz) Anyone can get a concussion, so it helps to know what to look for and what to do. Take our quiz and test your concussion knowledge.|
|Concussions: What to Do In a concussion, the brain shifts inside the skull. This can cause a sudden - but usually temporary - disruption in a person's ability to function properly and feel well. Here's what to do if you suspect a concussion.|
|Bike Safety Bike riding is a great way to get exercise and fresh air and share time as a family. But there's an important factor that you need to consider - safety.|
|Concussions Ow! You fell and hit your head. But do you have a concussion? Find out about concussions in this article for kids.|
|Concussions How can you tell if you have a concussion? What should you do? And what's going to happen with sports and school? The facts are all on this site for teens.|
|Dealing With Sports Injuries You practiced hard and made sure you wore protective gear, but you still got hurt. Read this article to find out how to take care of sports injuries - and how to avoid getting them.|
|Dealing With Falls Falls are mostly a problem for young children and old people, but they can happen to active teens. Find out what to do - and when to get medical attention - by reading this printable instruction sheet.|
|Bike Safety Some simple rules can keep you safe on two wheels. Lean more about bike riding in this article for kids.|
|Sports Medicine Center Get tips on everything from finding the best sport for your kids to preventing and handling injuries.|
|Oooh, Your Aching Head! Lots of kids have headaches from time to time. Find out more about headaches in this article for kids.|
|Babysitting: Dealing With Falls What should you do if a child you're babysitting falls? Our tip sheet can help you be prepared.|
|Childproofing and Preventing Household Accidents You might think of babies and toddlers when you hear the words "babyproofing" or "childproofing," but unintentional injury is the leading cause of death in kids 14 years old and under.|
|Concussions: Getting Better All body parts take time to heal, even brains. But because you can't see a brain injury, healing can be a little more complicated. This article for teens has tips on what doctors often recommend to help people heal from a concussion.|
|Going to the Emergency Room Knowing what to expect when you need to take your child to the emergency room can help make it a little less stressful.|
|Playgrounds Kids love playgrounds and why not? Find out how to make the most of your next trip to the park.|
|Booster Seat Safety Your tot's not a baby anymore! It's time for a big-kid booster seat. But how can you ensure that your child is still safe and secure in the car? Find out here.|
|Car Seat Safety What's the right way to install an infant safety seat? Is your toddler ready for a convertible seat? Get the car seat know-how you need here.|
|Preventing Children's Sports Injuries Participation in sports can teach kids sportsmanship and discipline. But sports also carry the potential for injury. Here's how to protect your kids.|
|Concussions Special Needs Factsheet What teachers should know about concussions and the healing process.|
|Concussions: What Parents and Coaches Say We asked coaches and parents if they're following the latest rules on kids and concussions. See what they said.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.