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How Can You Tell if Your Child Has a Concussion?

Symptoms to look for when you think your child has a head injury.



Seven years ago my son suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during a soccer game.

An opposing player cleared a ball that hit my 6-foot-2-inch son in the head, knocking him out cold. He came-to quickly and convinced his coach to leave him in, scoring the winning goal. At the time, there were no mandates about removing an athlete from the game if a head or brain injury was suspected.

 My son arrived home not feeling well; the right side of his head was swollen. Because it was a Sunday, I took him to the hospital, where the emergency room physicians examined him, scanned his head, and pronounced him fit enough to go home. They did caution me about symptoms to watch for and to monitor him throughout night, just in case. He did fine overnight.

 I sent him to school the next morning but received a call from him just hours into his day. He felt dizzy, disorientated and nauseous. He had a severe headache too. These symptoms were indicative of a traumatic brain injury.

 I picked him up from school and took him to see a sports-concussion specialist that our pediatrician recommended. My son was given a number of tests, which he failed completely. He was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). The specialist monitored him and retested him weekly while his brain healed from the trauma, however the doctor was hampered by the fact that my son did not have a baseline before he sustained the TBI (my other soccer-playing kiddos have annual baselines).

Childhood brain injuries up 57%

Of the 1.7 million adults and children who sustain TBIs each year, 52,000 die, 275,000 are hospitalized, and 1.3 million are treated and released from emergency rooms. These mild TBIs are commonly referred to as “concussions.”

Close to a half million children under the age of 15 are treated annually in ERs for TBI-related injuries. The Centers for Disease Control has seen the number of brain injuries suffered in children jump 57 percent between 2001 and 2009.

In addition to dizziness, nausea, vomiting and severe headaches, those suffering a brain injury can experience the following symptoms, which can range from mild to severe and be long- or short-term.

Symptoms of brain injury in children

  • Memory loss
  • Slowing cognitive functioning
  • Visual problems
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Loss of smell, balance
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Seizures
  • Mood changes, especially irritability or depression

Schools take extra precautions

Some schools take extra steps to prevent and detect head injuries.

At The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, PA, for example, Middle School soccer players are banned from heading the ball and sensors that measure force are used to monitor blows to the head in Upper School contact sports, said Mark Duncan, athletics director.

Shipley students are also part of a study run by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania where athletes’ vision, balance and oxygen levels in the brain are tested at the start and end of the season.

“This information will help researchers at CHOP and Penn develop objective methods to better diagnose concussions using objective measurement,” said Duncan.

Get to a doctor if your child shows these head-injury symptoms

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Ongoing nausea or vomiting
  • An ongoing and worsening headache
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • One pupil larger than the other
  • Weakness, numbness or decreased coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Cannot be consoled, keeps crying
  • Refusal to nurse if nursing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bed wetting
  • Appears drowsy or cannot be woken up
  • Confusion, does not recognize familiar people or environment
  • Restlessness, agitation or unusual behavior   

Ways to prevent concussions, increase awareness

  • Train coaches, parents, players on symptoms, treatment.
  • Teach parents, players risks of head injuries in their sport.
  • Make sure athletes wear required protective equipment, e.g., helmet for horseback riding.
  • Learn how to prevent shaken-baby syndrome.
  • Cover areas around playground equipment with soft materials.
  • Properly install and use car seats, booster seats and seatbelts.
  • Use safety gates on stairs and other elevated areas, such as decks.
  • Install safety bars on windows to prevent falls.

Judy M. Miller is a freelance writer.

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