DEAR DOCTOR K: My son got a concussion playing football. His doctor said he shouldn’t play again until his symptoms have completely disappeared. What symptoms should we be looking out for?
DEAR READER: A concussion follows a physical blow or impact to the head that disturbs the way the brain works. While it sometimes causes a person to temporarily lose consciousness, it doesn’t always do that. It also can cause other symptoms that indicate the brain has been injured — and those can become apparent days or weeks after a person who has been knocked out regains consciousness. A concussion is a serious injury, more serious than we used to think.
Most people recover quickly and completely from a concussion. However, as long as even subtle symptoms of a concussion last, the brain remains especially vulnerable to another injury. As your son’s doctor advised, it is very important that your son not return to playing football, or any contact sport, until he is completely symptom-free. Not only can a second concussion that occurs before the brain recovers from the first slow recovery; it also can increase the risk of long-term problems. It’s rare, but repeat concussions can also result in brain swelling, permanent brain damage, even death.
Concussion symptoms can be wide-ranging. As you might expect, a concussion can cause physical symptoms such as headache and dizziness. But a concussion can also cause problems with thinking, sleep and mood.
Some symptoms may appear immediately and go away quickly. Others may not emerge for days or even weeks, and may last for a few months. Look out for the following concussion-related symptoms:
— Blurred vision
— Difficulty thinking, paying attention, remembering and learning
— Poor sleep
— Poor focus
There is no specific medicine used to treat a concussion. The best treatment is rest from physical and mental activity. Watch your son closely and contact his doctor if his symptoms get worse or if his behavior changes. Ask the doctor if your son should be excused from gym class or if he needs to limit his activities during recess. You may need to adjust your child’s schedule and schoolwork as well.
As for returning to sports, the timing is different for every child. Symptoms often go away within a couple of weeks, but some children may take months to get better. Once you believe your son’s symptoms are gone, get his doctor’s OK before you let him back on the gridiron.
In the past five to 10 years, we’ve learned to take concussions — particularly repeated concussions — much more seriously. Recent studies of athletes who suffer repeated head injuries have revealed that permanent brain injury is more common than we used to think. Until we better understand the risks, I think it’s wise to be cautious about participating in contact sports — and to pamper anyone who has suffered a concussion.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.