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What every parent needs to know about concussions

A neuropsychologist helps us understand the impact on children with concussions

Awareness regarding the potential negative effects of concussions has increased dramatically in recent years. As we learn more about concussions, guidelines for how best to treat athletes continue to evolve. Most athletic trainers and coaches have completed several hours of education regarding how to manage a concussion immediately after it occurs. Regardless of any recommendations they may provide, it is a good idea to notify your child’s primary care physician so that his or her doctor can document the concussion in your child’s medical record, provide guidance in the acute phase of recovery, and better coordinate care if symptoms persist. In addition, having an ongoing record of injuries can be particularly helpful if your child experiences multiple concussions.

After a child sustains a concussion, he or she should be removed from the game or practice in order to allow the brain to rest. While the importance of rest following a concussion has been scientifically validated, the definition of "rest" has not been well-established. As such, an individualized approach to concussion management is preferred. While limiting physical activity is often the first area considered when a child is instructed to rest, limiting stress in other areas of life can be equally important. In addition to physical rest, cognitive and emotional rest is also important following a concussion.

Although an extreme approach to cognitive rest is sometimes recommended, studies suggest that a more moderate approach results in better long-term outcomes. In fact, scientific evidence documenting the benefits of cognitive rest is limited. Nevertheless, limiting cognitive exertion can decrease the frequency or intensity of other symptoms, such as headache.

School is the most cognitively demanding activity for most student athletes, and their baseline level of academic functioning should be considered when creating a treatment plan. Students with more severe symptoms may benefit from staying home from school for 1 to 2 days.

However, because symptoms typically resolve within a few days, formal homebound education services are generally unnecessary because the amount of instruction provided is minimal (e.g., typically only about 4 hours per week). Furthermore, homebound school services are typically reserved for students expected to miss school for an entire month.

Immediately returning to school may be a better option for some students with mild symptoms as well as students who are likely to become severely distressed if they miss a day of school. In addition, when children are told to maintain complete cognitive rest (e.g., sit quietly in a dark room with no electronics), they may become overly focused on their symptoms and consequences of rest (e.g., having to make up multiple school assignments later).

It is also important to understand the role of electronics and technology in the lives of children, especially adolescents. While using a computer or texting on a telephone may trigger headaches, completely prohibiting a teenager from engaging in these activities can result in social isolation and contribute to emotional distress. Depending upon the assignment, prohibiting all use of electronics can result in a student being unable to complete homework requiring use of a computer.

When compared to other areas, less attention is typically given to importance of emotional rest. Particularly for teenagers, social and emotional situations can be a big concern. Limiting a child's exposure to volatile emotional situations (e.g., pressure from friends and coaches to return to play, arguments between parents) is important. In addition, peers and teachers often have a variety of reactions to a child's concussion.

For example, while most people will likely respond with understanding and support. Others, however, may discount the significance of the child’s symptoms and doubt whether the symptoms are "real" because the child does not look "sick."

When the validity of symptoms is questioned, a child will sometimes unconsciously exhibit persisting or worsening difficulties. An athlete may also feel pressure from peers, teachers, or parents to return to play before they are ready, which can lead to emotional distress as well as the appearance of persisting or worsening of cognitive symptoms.

A concussion often results in increased fatigue, particularly in the first few hours after the injury. Indeed, some scientific evidence shows that physical rest during the first 24 to 48 hours may result in an overall faster recovery. In addition, because other studies have demonstrated that a concussion sustained within a week of a prior concussion can result a longer duration of symptoms, avoiding high-risk activities (e.g., returning to play) in the days following a concussion may be best.

However, studies have also shown that extreme physical rest for more than 3 days can worsen symptoms and lead to deconditioning. Most children and adolescents who sustain a concussion will stop experiencing severe symptoms within hours to days and will completely recover within a few days to a couple of weeks.

Regardless of when a student returns to school, it is important that the school nurse and all teachers be informed that the student has sustained a concussion. Following a concussion, students may exhibit inattention, distractibility, slow thinking, and confusion as well headaches, vision difficulties, and fatigue.

Some temporary accommodations can include preferential seating in the classroom (e.g., at the front of the room and away from distractions), testing in a separate room, extra time to complete tests and assignments, shortened assignments, copies of teacher notes prior to lectures, note-taking services, rest breaks during the school day, and permission to eat lunch in a quiet environment.

Considering the typically rapid recovery following a concussion, a formal accommodations plan at school is usually unnecessary because, by the time a plan has been finalized, the student is no longer symptomatic.

If, however, a child is slower to recover, a more thorough medical evaluation may be necessary to further investigate and treat physical dysfunction (e.g., headaches, dizziness). In addition, a neuropsychological evaluation can be helpful in evaluating the specific areas of cognitive difficulty and severity of the deficits as well as provide guidance regarding the need for a more formal academic plan.


About the author

Carla Hearl Morton, Ph.D., is a pediatric neuropsychologist at Cook Children's. She is a licensed psychologist with expertise in how learning and behavior are connected to the development of a child's brain structures and systems. At Cook Children's, neuropsychologists work closely with a team of neurologists andneurosurgeons to provide the best treatments and interventions that meet the individual needs of each child.

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