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Concussions in children

Concussions are the most common type of traumatic brain injuries. A concussion is usually caused by a blow to the head or body that results in a disruption or loss of normal brain function and potentially a loss of consciousness. A concussion is diagnosed based on symptoms that can occur immediately after the injury or hours, possibly days, later.  Some of the common signs and symptoms include headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, blurry vision or coordination problems, but each instance can present with different symptoms.

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Our Experts

Joseph Petronio, MD

Joseph Petronio, MD, is a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Minnesota. He currently leads the neurosurgery program at the St. Paul campus. He is also the Medical Director of the Concussion Clinic.

A photo of Dr. Robert Doss

Robert Doss, LP PsyD, is a neuropsychologist at Children’s Minnesota. He is Co-Director of the Concussion Clinic.

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Dr. Petronio Discusses Youth Sports and Concussions

Dr. Joseph Petronio spoke with WCCO-TV about head injuries in child athletes, how head trauma affects children’s brains and the safety concerns around youth contact sports.

Your Concussion Questions Answered

What is a concussion?

A concussion is the most common type of traumatic brain injury. It causes a temporary loss of normal brain function. Usually, but not always, a blow to the head or body is the cause and there may or may not be loss of consciousness. A concussion cannot be seen on an x-ray or CAT scan. It is diagnosed based on symptoms that can show up right after the injury or may not appear or be noticed until hours or days later.

How can a concussion be prevented?

Certain activities, such as contact sports, increase the likelihood of a concussion. Always be sure your child wears proper protective equipment during sports, such as helmets. Additional preventative measures include:

  • Use a car seat, booster or seat belt
  • Make sure protective equipment fits properly and follow safety instructions
  • Keep stairs clear of clutter
  • Install window guards to keep young children from falling
  • Place safety gates at top and bottom of stairs for young children
  • Secure rugs and use rubber mats in bathtubs
  • Play on surfaces made with shock-absorbing material

What are the symptoms?

Each case is different, but if your child is suffering from a concussion they may present with one or more of the following symptoms. Having more than one symptom does not necessarily mean that the concussion is more severe.

  • Headache or dizziness
  • Drowsiness or sleepiness
  • Focus or concentration problems
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Balance or coordination problems
  • Disorientation or mental confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Slowed thinking or speech
  • Blank or vacant look
  • Loss of consciousness

Are the symptoms different for infants and toddlers?

Young children and infants may not be able to tell parents or physicians how they feel, so it’s important to look for physical signs. In addition to the above, look for:

  • Swelling of the scalp or soft spot
  • Listlessness (child feels “floppy” in your arms and doesn’t play or grab objects)
  • Crying more than usual and cannot be consoled
  • Refusing to eat or nurse
  • Changes in play or loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Loss of new skills, such as walking or toilet training

When should I call a doctor?

It’s important to closely monitor your child for the hours and days following a head injury. Whether mild or severe, all concussions should be evaluated by a specialist within 24 to 72 hours. Call your doctor immediately if your child:

  • Has a headache that’s not relieved by medication or rest
  • Has worsening or new symptoms
  • Is vomiting after the injury
  • Has trouble waking up or is especially sleepy

Continue to closely monitor symptoms even after diagnosis, and if they worsen or don’t improve within 10 days, return to your doctor.

How do I care for my child after a concussion?

Your child should follow up with their primary care doctor or a concussion specialist within 1-3 days of their injury. The most important thing to do is to make sure your child is able to rest their body and brain for the first 7-10 days after a concussion. It’s important to alert other adults who care for your child, such as teachers, coaches, daycare providers and others, about the concussion and recovery plan so you can work together to monitor progress and limit certain activities.

During the weeks or even months following a concussion, your doctor will let you know what your child can and can’t do. Possible recommendations include:

  • No strenuous physical activity, such as:
    • Sports
    • Contact activity
    • Activities that increase heart rate
    • Excessive walking
    • Physical education classes or recess
    • Weight training
    • Chores that result in sweating or exertion of the body
  • No added stress to the brain, such as:
    • Schoolwork or studying
    • Work
    • Reading
    • Driving
    • Screen time (TV, video games, computer, cell phone)

When can my child return to normal activities?

This is different for every case and something parents should work with their physician to determine. Typically, when concussion symptoms have lessened and are tolerable for 30-45 minutes, a child can return to school. This typically happens within a few days to a week of sustaining the concussion. Children should not return to sports or any physical activity until cleared by their physician. It’s important to decrease the chance of your child sustaining another head injury within the first 1-3 months following a concussion, as subsequent concussions can cause serious problems.

Dr. Chawla on Sports Concussions

Dr. Gigi Chawla discussed sports concussions on her WCCO-TV Ask a Pediatrician segment.

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