It can be something as simple as falling off a bicycle or as forceful as slamming to the ice during a hockey game.
But both incidents could result in what the American Academy of Pediatrics has termed "a silent epidemic" among children — concussions.
Recent data from hospital emergency rooms across the country revealed that:
- Roughly half a million ER visits for concussions occurred among 8- to 19-year-olds.
- About half were sports-related and 40 percent of the sports-related concussions involved children between the ages of 8 and 13.
- Football and ice hockey were the organized sports with the most concussion injuries, while bicycling, skiing and playground activities accounted for most concussions occurring from non-team-related activities.
- Statistics show that the number of young children treated for concussions has doubled in just a decade — which is the reason why pediatricians are tackling the problem head on.
Concussions are mild to severe traumatic brain injuries that might occur when someone is struck in the head, causing the brain to shake or shift within the skull.
Until recently, many in the medical profession thought that children could shake off concussions after a few days or weeks, suffering only short-term symptoms, such as headaches and listlessness.
But according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young children and teens are more prone to concussions and take longer to recover than adults.
Multiple concussions are even more dangerous, causing potentially catastrophic brain damage.
The most common causes of concussions among children are activities that can result in a bump, blow or jolt to the head, said Gordon Braun, physician assistant with Antrim Family & Walk-in Care, an affiliate of Summit Health in Greencastle, Pa. This includes sports or riding in motor vehicles and on bicycles, motorcycles and ATVs.
Concussions also can occur from falls or blows to the body that cause the head and brain to move back and forth rapidly, he said.
At one time, concussions were graded from mild to severe. Today, Braun said, grading is falling out of favor.
"However, the symptoms of mild concussions will typically resolve within one month," he said.
Symptoms of concussions generally fall into four categories, Braun noted:
- Thinking — trouble thinking clearly, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering new things
- Physical — headache, blurry vision, nausea, dizziness, sensitivity to light or noise, trouble with balance
- Emotional — sad, nervous, anxious, more emotional, irritable
- Sleep — sleeping more or less than usual or trouble falling asleep
Your child might be at higher risk of having a more serious head injury if he or she has had a previous concussion, has a bleeding disorder, is less than a year old and has other neurologic problems, according to the Academy.
Braun said parents or other adults should seek emergency care right away if a child has any of the mentioned danger signs and will not stop crying and will not eat.
The child might have to stay in the hospital for a short time. If not, parents will receive special care instructions and will be encouraged to watch the child's symptoms for several weeks.
Braun said your doctor will provide a timetable on when to resume certain activities.
"Too much physical activity too soon after a brain injury can slow down recovery and can possibly cause more damage," he said.
Braun suggested making sure a child is getting plenty of sleep at night and rest during the day. Avoid doing things that require a great deal of focus or concentration.
If the symptoms worsen, contact your doctor immediately, he said.
Braun said there are many ways to reduce the chances that you or your child will have a concussion or more serious brain injury.
"A very important way to prevent concussions in children is to make sure your child is wearing protective head gear when riding any type of bicycle, motorcycle, snowmobile or scooter, or using ice skates, a skateboard, skis or snowboard," he said.
Children should also wear helmets when playing contact sports, like football and ice hockey, or playing softball or baseball, he added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends always using a child safety seat, booster seat or seat belt whenever riding in a vehicle.
Also, make living areas safer for children by installing window guards to keep young children from falling out of open windows; using safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs; keeping stairs clear of clutter; securing rugs and using rubber mats in bathtubs; and not allowing children to play on unsafe surfaces.
The Centers for Disease Control said communities also can lend in hand in preventing concussions by insuring that playground areas are made of shock-absorbing material, such as hardwood mulch or sand, maintained at an appropriate depth.