Being active is essential to good health, but taking part in sports is not without certain risks. One of the potential injuries is a concussion, which can be a cause for concern because it can have long-term consequences on both physical and psychological health.
What is a concussion?
The brain is a soft organ protected by the skull bones. It normally stays securely in place inside the skull, even though we sometimes accidentally hit our head. When the impact is quite strong, however, or our head undergoes whiplash (as can happen in a hockey body check or a car accident, for example), the brain can become rattled inside the skull.
There are usually no visible signs of a concussion – no fractured bones, no blood, no obvious wounds. If anything, there might only be a bump at the site of impact. The bump usually forms because a small blood vessel in the scalp has been torn and blood is pooling ibetween the skin and skull bones.
How can you tell if a person has a concussion? You can tell by observing how the person feels in the minutes and hours following the impact: Are they dizzy or nauseated? Have they vomited? Are they confused? Do they have a headache or difficulty keeping their balance? Are you noticing any memory lapses or irritability?
In cases of suspected concussion, it’s very important to see a physician and never leave the person alone. In cases of lost consciousness, call 9-1-1- immediately and do not move the individual, as this could aggravate the injury.
Are concussions serious?
Concussions can produce a range of symptoms, but they usually resolve over time. The only remedy is complete rest for 7 to 10 days. Complete rest means no sports or physical activity, but also anything that requires a lot of concentration, such as video games, school work or professional work. The brain needs complete rest in order to heal, even though the person has no visible wound and appears fine.
The risk of long-term consequences increases with each new concussion. Consequences vary from one person to another, but usually include impaired concentration and memory, which can have a negative impact on studies or work.
How can we prevent concussions?
The best approach is to avoid risky situations, but that might mean never leaving the house! Between the extremes of avoiding all risk and being totally reckless, however, there is a middle ground where the benefits of an activity outweigh the risk of concussion.
Other than accidents, the most likely place to get a concussion is during contact sports (e.g. football or hockey) or those where you can fall at great speeds (e.g. downhill sports or cycling). In non-contact sports, concussions are usually accidental, whereas in contact sports, the risk of concussion is an inherent part of the sport. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all football and hockey players get concussions!
What should you do if your children insist on playing contact sports? For starters, take the time to meet with their coaches and ask them some questions. Do they know the signs of a concussion? Do they have an action plan in place for cases of concussion? How long will the player be off, and how will the re-entry take place?
Once the coaches have convinced you they are competent and well-prepared, and you decide to let your child take part in the sport, then what? Make sure the equipment fits properly, especially the helmet (if a helmet is required). During the growing years, it’s important to check the fit of the helmet on a regular basis.
Also make sure to regularly attend practices, games and competitions, and make sure you see evidence of the coaches’ reassurances. Lastly, keep an eye on your children’s behaviour in the hours and days following a practice or game, especially if they’ve suffered a blow or a fall. If you suspect a concussion, see a physician.
A word about helmets
Helmets greatly reduce the risk of suffering a concussion – or an even more serious brain injury – but in order to be effective, they need to fit properly, be properly strapped on… and they need to be worn! When a helmet isn’t properly adjusted, it can move at the moment of impact and expose the skull to a direct hit. If it isn’t properly secured, a helmet can fly off and leave the head entirely vulnerable to a dangerous blow. If you’re unsure how to properly secure a helmet, be sure to consult a coach or specialized retailer.
Once a helmet has been in an impact, it should be discarded and a new one purchased, even if there is no visible damage to the current one. The helmet may have been weakened by the blow and may not be able to withstand another impact.
A healthy mind in a healthy body
Physical activity is essential to both physical and mental health, but it’s important to be aware of the risks and act accordingly to prevent them whenever possible.