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Protecting Young Minds: Sports Medicine Physician Shares the 411 on Concussions

Learn about the signs and symptoms of a concussion.

By Ashley Antle

With school back in session, many kids are once again suiting up for fall sports and hitting the field, track or court for competition. Doing so offers a child many benefits. Along with being an outlet for exercise and physical activity, playing sports gives kids an opportunity to develop meaningful friendships, practice resilience and learn the value of hard work and perseverance.

But, like with most activities, there are risks. Sustaining a concussion is one of them.

What is a concussion?Football Helmet

The Centers for Disease Control defines a concussion as “a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth.” While sports, especially contact ones, carry an obvious risk of head injuries, a concussion can happen any time of year from any type of sport, recreational activity or play.

A 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics evaluating three national injury databases estimated that 1.1 million to 1.9 million recreational and sports-related concussions occur every year in the United States in children 18 years of age or younger. When it comes to sports-related concussions for high schoolers, boys tackle football tops the incidence list with girls’ soccer coming in second, according to the report.

“A lot of concussions go unreported or undetected,” said Nicole Pitts, D.O., a sports medicine physician at Cook Children’s Pediatric Specialties in Prosper. “Usually 2 in 10 high school athletes who play contact sports, including soccer and lacrosse, get a concussion.”

Signs and symptomssoccer header

A concussion can sometimes be hard to spot. After all, it’s an internal injury. There are no visible cuts, bruises or breaks. Parents and coaches must rely on how a child feels and behaves to spot the signs and symptoms, which could have a delayed onset and last for days, weeks, months or more.

If your child takes a blow to the head, here are the signs and symptoms that they may have a concussion:

  • Persistent headache or increasing head pressure
  • Drowsiness or difficulty waking, characterized by grogginess, haziness, sluggishness or foggy feeling
  • Dizziness and balance issues
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Weakness, numbness or reduced coordination
  • Persistent vomiting, including nausea
  • Slurred speech or slowed responses
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Confusion, forgetfulness or difficulty recalling events before or after the injury
  • Restlessness, agitation or heightened sensitivity to light and noise
  • Behavioral or personality changes
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Asymmetrical pupil size (one pupil larger than the other)

What to do if you suspect your child has suffered a concussion

If you suspect your child has suffered a concussion, first and foremost, pull them from the game or activity.

“If they're in a game and you suspect they’ve had a concussion or had a blow to the head, or they're having any of those symptoms, even if you’re not sure, but suspect it, they need to be removed from the game immediately,” Dr. Pitts said. “That's the most important thing, and they should not be put back into play in that game or any activity on the same day at all.”

Have them evaluated by a professional, like a physician or athletic trainer, right away, especially if they lose consciousness, are confused and disoriented, are vomiting continuously and have trouble talking.

What's next

The clinical protocol for concussion treatment and rehab includes two strategies for evaluating an athlete’s recovery and readiness to get back in the game. The first 24 to 48 hours after a concussion should be a time of rest for the athlete, followed by a gradual and staged reentry to school and sports using the return-to-learn and the return-to-sports strategies. Athletes should remain in each stage for a minimum of 24 hours and should be able to complete the activities each stage allows with little to no exacerbation of concussion symptoms before moving to the next.

“We'll get them back into school first and once they're back in school and able to do all of their school activities and they're not having any symptoms, then we’ll start them on a return-to sports protocol,” said Carolyn Snow, MS, LAT, ATC, OTC, sports medicine coordinator at Cook Children’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. “We don't want to do any sports activities until they’re symptom-free.”

Dr. Pitts utilizes these clinical strategies with her concussion patients in Prosper. Cook Children’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine concussion clinics at Walsh Ranch, Hurst and Mansfield also follow the return-to-learn and return-to-sports clinical protocols, in addition to utilization of a concussion testing tool called ImPACT to help determine a child’s readiness to return to activity. This computerized test measures memory, attention span, and visual and verbal problem-solving. Dr. Pitts is also certified to administer the ImPACT test.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of concussion early on, and taking immediate action can help protect your young athlete’s mind from further or more serious injury. Getting the proper treatment and rehabilitation can minimize the long-term consequences from concussion and get them safely back in the game when the time is right. 

Get to know Nicole Pitts, D.O. dr nicole pitts

Nicole Pitts, DO knew from a very young age once she met her pediatrician that she wanted to be a doctor. She always had an interest in anatomy and how the body works. At 14 years old, she started her career as a professional tennis player and was exposed to numerous sports medicine doctors, which continued to ignite her passion for medicine. ​​ 

She attended Florida Atlantic University for her Undergraduate and Master's Degrees and then went on to attend Lincoln Memorial University Debusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tennessee for medical school. Following medical school, she went to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center St. Margaret for her family medicine residency. ​​ 

Dr. Pitts completed her sports medicine fellowship at the University of Florida. While she was at UF, she worked with Olympic and elite Division 1 athletes, which included the Gator football team and all the other collegiate sports teams. ​​ 

She is extremely passionate about helping young athletes prevent and recover from their injuries. Having been a professional athlete herself, Dr. Pitts personally understands just how difficult injuries can be and is committed to helping young athletes have well-balanced, healthy, and active lifestyles. ​​ 

Dr. Pitts has a special interest in ultrasound, concussions, and tennis medicine. ​​​ 

Outside of work she enjoys working out, traveling, volunteering and, spending time with her husband Tom and their dog Bella and cat Jada. They are enjoying making Prosper, TX their home and getting involved in the community.

Go here to learn more about Dr. Pitts.