The first concussion was in the school gym, the next during an away soccer tournament, and the most recent was in our son’s final high school soccer game.
We grew more uneasy with each occurrence and, as parents to three sons, we wondered why one of them seemed to be more prone to concussions. The boys are close in age, and all are rough-and-tumble with sports and activities.
With our son, the symptoms worsened with each concussion. There were headaches, anxiety, and he had trouble focusing on school work. It was hard to know how much of it was caused by the concussions or how much of it was normal teenage growing pains.
It was also hard to figure out why our middle son had gotten far more concussions than his brothers, both in terms of number and severity. They’re close in age and share the same love of sports and roughhousing. A friend with three kids had a similar experience where only her middle child had recurring concussions.
To find out, I talked with leading sports medicine and concussion experts. In general, they said parents shouldn’t panic about the risk of concussions. But you can’t ignore them either. Here’s what you need to know.
Concussions can happen because of many reasons
Micky Collins, PhD, executive director of UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, says a concussion isn’t simply about getting hit in the head. Other factors impact the likelihood and severity of a concussion, such as:
- learning disorders
- body type
- lazy eye
- susceptibility to car sickness
“It’s not necessarily how hard you get hit, it’s what you bring to the table,” Collins says.
Collins classifies concussions by 6 types:
Different factors can contribute to these types of concussions. In our case, our son’s body type may have played a role. He has always been thin and stayed that way as he shot up in height. He’s now about 5’10” and weighs just shy of 140 pounds.
As a midfielder on the soccer team, he’s fast and intense.
“It may be related to neck strength,” says Cynthia LaBella, MD, chairperson at American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, and medical director at Institute for Sports Medicine, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Research shows there may be a link between the neck muscles’ ability to absorb shock during a hit to the head. Stronger muscles may slow down the impact and limit concussions.
There’s a greater instance of concussions among girls than boys, and similarly between younger children compared to college age students, LaBella says. Boys are generally bigger and stronger than girls, and college kids have stronger neck muscles than young kids, whose muscles haven’t yet developed.
That may explain why my son’s stockier brothers haven’t had as much trouble with concussions.
My friend’s daughter had lingering concussion problems that point in a different direction. She first got a concussion playing sports, and then had another during theater practice when she got hit in the head with a piece of equipment. The most recent was walking into a door at school.
She has ADHD and her family’s history of migraines may have played a role in her susceptibility to get concussions.
Does one concussion lead to another?
Research shows one concussion can increase the risk of another. But doctors caution against taking kids out of sports which are such a healthy outlet, physically and emotionally.
“Some of our athletes in the clinic have come in with concussions from something away from their sport, just an everyday life event,” LaBella says. Getting hit on the head when closing the trunk of the car or falling on ice or down stairs can lead to concussion.
What’s the key to treatment?
As with any medical condition, correct diagnosis and treatment are key to a full recovery.
After our son’s first concussion the pediatrician said he could return to school quickly. A lunch hour in the school cafeteria, with all the motion and noise, triggered a trip to the school nurse.
He came home and stayed there the rest of the week. At the time, we weren’t sure what to do other than have him rest in a dark, quiet room.
Concussion awareness, research, and treatment have evolved in the past five to ten years, LaBella says. And while rest immediately following the injury is important, specific types of therapy may be required depending on the symptoms that occur in the days that follow.
In my son’s case, his last concussion caused balance and focus problems. He could focus on his teacher, but not on the whiteboard behind her. His pediatric neurologist suggested he get specific physical therapy to retrain his brain to be able to improve his focus and balance with a specifically trained physical therapist. He had weekly physical therapy sessions which helped greatly.
So, what does this mean for our son? I suggested that swimming might be the kind of sport that could keep our son safe from concussions. Not necessarily, La Bella says. While rates are highest in contact sports such as football, soccer, and basketball, concussions can occur in any sport. She says she’s had a patient that got kicked in the head in a busy lane during swim practice. So, while our one son’s likelihood for concussions may always be slightly higher than his brothers, we’re faced with a unique challenge as parents. We’ll take measures to make sure he’s as safe as can be, but in order to let him be a kid and explore his hobbies and passions, we’ll have to grit our teeth and hope for the best.
Do you have kids who are concussion-prone? How do you cope? Share your tips with me in the comments.
[Ellen Rooney Martin] Ellen Rooney Martin is an award-winning journalist who has contributed stories to numerous print, online, and Fortune 500 Companies covering everything from parenting to data analytics. Her work has appeared in the American Bar Association Journal, Parenting, TechPageOne.com, AOL.com, and others.