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Concussions: How Much Do You Know to Protect Your Teen?

Parent To-do List

Before your child steps out onto the field, make sure:

  • He gets regular physical exams
  • He's wearing protective gear that fits and works properly
  • The coach has been trained in concussion prevention, recognition and management
  • The team gets adequate breaks for rest and hydration
  • You know who provides medical care for the team
  • You've read the school's emergency care plan

Is Dad on Board?

Men can be a little too gung-ho when it comes to sports. A recent nationwide survey found that 90% of fathers who played high school football and suffered a concussion, or suspected they did, still want their sons in the game, while more than half of them believe there's too much hype about head trauma. Fact is, teen athletes are under intense pressure not just from dads but from peers and coaches as well. In today's pervasive "culture of tough," which rewards playing with pain or shrugging it off, teens may be reluctant to report symptoms of concussion and other serious injuries for fear of looking soft. "Moms can help counter this by talking to their kids—and their husbands—and emphasizing that concussion is no wimpy injury," says Dr. Walter. "An environment that encourages reporting a concussion rather than hiding one is key to our children's safety."

The Lowdown on Baseline Tests

If your teen is offered a preseason neurocognitive screening, by all means sign up. Thousands of school districts are having tween and teen athletes take the computerized tests, which measure memory, reaction time and concentration (there's no comparable test for younger kids) and can be used to detect changes in brain function after a teen sustains a head injury. However, experts agree that a post-injury test should not be taken too soon after a concussion. "It puts extra demands on the brain, and can trigger dizziness or nausea or even exacerbate other concussion symptoms," says Michael O'Brien, M.D., associate director of the Sports Concussion Clinic at Boston Children's Hospital. What's more, the test alone can't be used to confirm a concussion—and even when taken weeks after an injury, it is not sufficient to determine whether an athlete has recovered enough to get back in the game. "They are being misused far more often than not," says Dr. Kutcher, who cautions parents not to over-rely on the screenings. "Every week I see patients who were allowed to return to the field, based solely on the test, when they shouldn't have been." Another caveat for parents: Warn your kid against deliberately underperforming on the original baseline in the hope that it will be easier to meet those lowered scores should he or she suffer a concussion. Specialists say that while teens sometimes try to deceive them, internal quality controls can spot those who are faking it.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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