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Recognizing a Potential Concussion in Your Teen Athlete

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

In the minutes after a teen athlete experiences a concussion, they face a decision: Do they acknowledge that they aren’t feeling right, and potentially get pulled from the game? Or, in an attempt to help their team, do they hide it and claim they’re fine?

As a parent, you know which choice you want them to make. Untreated head injuries can make your child more vulnerable to potential long-term health problems. Early intervention is critical when a concussion is suspected, and on the field it can be difficult to decipher what a head injury looks like without any obvious outward signs. 

A Mississippi 16-year-old football player died in August after sustaining a head injury and returning to the field.

Florida law lays out a procedure for teen athletes to be tested and cleared by a physician before returning to play once an injury is diagnosed. However, on-field decisions often incorporate too much subjectivity, and rely heavily upon honesty in symptom reporting. Unfortunately, teen athletes often feel as if acknowledging a potential head injury is a sign of weakness and choose not to report it.

Understanding Your Child’s Mindset

According to one study of about 800 high school athletes, 69 percent of players acknowledged they play with concussion symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of these players, 40 percent said their coach didn’t know they had a possible concussion.

“There’s a stigma with head injuries, especially in football, because players understand what it means to sit out when the team is depending on them,” says John Burnside MS, ATC, LAT, practice manager of the Sports Concussion Program at Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.

A 2017 study on the brains of deceased football players found that 110 of the 111 NFL players tested had a form of long-term brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Three out of the 14 brains of high school players also had the disease.

Studies like these have raised the stakes about treating concussion as a serious injury, says Burnside, who has served as a head athletic trainer in Division 1 college athletics for 12 years.

In response, certified athletic trainers are increasingly talking about concussion in ways that speak to teen athletes’ own goals and values. By coming forward sooner, they say, athletes are actually shortening their recovery time. It’s better for the whole team that an athlete misses one game rather than weeks or even the whole season.

“We know the longer you stay in and try and push through it, the more likely you will have symptoms of greater severity and duration,” Burnside says.

Take Charge To Recognize Red Flags

Parents have a unique role in helping their children treat concussions. Often, they’re the ones who notice something is off and encourage their child to talk to their certified athletic trainer.

“You know your child better than anybody, and often you will be the first to know when something is off,” Burnside says.

Certified athletic trainers do a great job of injury recognition and management, but they are not with their athletes all the time. Therefore, parents often play an active role in concussion management.

After all, there’s no definitive test for a concussion, no blood test or brain scan to settle the issue. Instead, concussions are diagnosed based on the athlete’s functional ability — their memory, balance, recall, and so forth. That’s why the information gleaned from parents is so valuable to athletic trainers and doctors.

For example, if your child is sleeping more than normal or has trouble with short-term memory they could be recovering from a concussion.

Seek Help For Any Concern

Once an appointment is made to see a physician that specializes in concussion, the biggest hurdle has been cleared. After that, experts from a multidisciplinary team — including concussion-trained physical therapists, neurologists, psychologists, and others — can evaluate your child and zero in on specific patterns within the injury if needed.

Florida Hospital’s Sports Concussion Program also offers a comprehensive program that can give any parent peace of mind by seeking independent concussion management.

To schedule an appointment at the Sports Concussion Program, visit our website or call 407-303-8012.