Traumatic brain injury is an all-ages threat

U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jim Araos

Going for an afternoon jog and participating in afterschool sports are parts of daily life for millions of children. Most times, these activities are healthy and harmless, but without proper safety measures, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are a possibility. A trip and fall could result in a head bump, as could a collision during a sporting event. In both cases, a mild TBI, also known as a concussion, could be the outcome. Injuries of this nature are common and can be scary, but parents and adults can take steps to improve safety and reduce injuries in children.

“Brain injuries don’t discriminate based on age,” said Dr. Scott Livingston, director of education at the Defense and Veteran Brain Injury Center (DVBIC). “Children definitely are not immune. In fact, a very large percentage of emergency room department visits each year are for children who suffered a brain injury.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2 million Americans, including more than 500,000 children, suffered some form of TBI in 2010. Falls, assaults, traffic accidents and unintentional hits to the head with some sort of object are the most common causes of these injuries. The majority of TBIs are mild, labeled concussions, and the prognosis for a full recovery is excellent. Bicycle accidents, football collisions, playground injuries and all-terrain vehicle mishaps are common causes of TBI in children and adolescents. “Playing sports is certainly one of the places where kids might encounter a mild trauma when they run into somebody else or hit a goal post,” said Dr. Marc DiFazio, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and an Army reservist.

Parents and children can reduce the chance of a TBI by taking certain precautions. DiFazio says that prevention of head injuries includes properly using sports equipment and protective gear, such as helmets, and using common sense and following safety instructions. DiFazio and Livingston said the pros of being involved in sports outweigh the cons, and that recreational activities can make children physically and mentally healthier.

“Exercise and sports participation are highly beneficial for our children,” said DiFazio on the importance of physical exercise, and that being fit and healthy can reduce the chance of injury. “We don’t need to unduly shelter our kids.”

He added that parents should not overreact because most concussions, if healed properly, cause no permanent damage. Extended periods of rest, not participating in school or activities, and preventing children from playing sports altogether can negatively affect the child by causing depression, obesity and other medical issues. Children should interact with friends, be physically active, and not remain isolated if symptoms are improving.

“Concussions are not one size fits all,” said DiFazio. “They [children] shouldn’t be unnecessarily restricted for a long period. If they are allowed to engage and be social, it can actually hasten their recovery.”

While preventative measures do help reduce the chances of an injury, no injury is entirely preventable. If a child does suffer a blow to the head, parents and adults should look for certain symptoms that indicate the child is concussed. Headache, dizziness, and a change in level of consciousness are all common symptoms of concussions. A concussed person might also experience confusion and have difficulty remembering the injury. If children are experiencing any of these symptoms, they should seek medical attention and rest for at least 24 hours before gradually resuming normal cognitive and physical activities. Livingston said that if children do not fully recover, they are at risk of a subsequent injury.

“The most straightforward approach is education,” said Livingston on preventing TBIs. “It’s important children understand the dangers of head injuries.”

For resources and additional information on concussions and other TBIs, please visit the DVBIC Web page.