HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – Fall sports are back in full swing. With games on TV and kids’ school and club teams, there is plenty of action taking place.
Injuries also come along with all the fun and competitive play. As student-athletes hit the fields this season, find out what you need to know about concussions in kids to keep them safe.
In this WAVY Digital Desk conversation, Digital Host Sarah Goode spoke to neuropsychologist Racheal M. Smetana, PsyD from UVA Health about the new Sports Concussion Consultation Clinic. Smetana discusses concussions in kids, the clinic and prevention. Watch the conversation in the video player on this page.
According to the CDC, a concussion is “a type of traumatic brain injury—or TBI—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.”
In sports, concussions can occur from different types of contact, falls or hits. Smetana said there is not one set description for what a concussion looks like.
Concussion symptoms can include dizziness, brain fog, balance problems or tracking problems.
Right after the injury occurs, it is important to take the player out of the game and conduct a sideline assessment. They can examine for symptoms and see if the harm is at a concussion-level threshold.
For some kids, a hit might not be obvious.
“I like to talk to families about if you get hit, if you feel even just a little bit off, you tell someone,” Smetana said.
She said patients they have heard from typically know within the first 30 minutes to a few hours after if they are presenting with a concussion.
“When kids are playing sports, adrenaline is high, so it might not be immediate that second, because that adrenaline is still there,” Smetana said. “But when it wears off, within those first few hours is when people have told me they really just feel awful, they don’t feel great (and) they can tell something is off.”
If it is more serious, the athletic trainer or medical team should be able to assess if the athlete might need additional care. This might occur if the player is knocked unconscious, or experiences more severe symptoms.
Concussions range in severity. For most kids, following a concussion, a school will put them on a return-to-play protocol, according to Smetana. It will be a step-by-step process that continues until you start to feel better and can return to play.
In general, following a concussion, you want a good night’s sleep and rest for 24 to 48 hours, but then get kids back to typical activities.
“We used to treat concussions like this cocooning where you have to sit in the dark, turn off all the lights and you can’t do anything until you feel 100% better,” Smetana said.
She said there has been a lot of great scientific research on concussions over the last 10 to15 years.
“Particularly in athletes, kids and people in general who are used to moving every day, used to exercise, we found that exercise is actually really helpful in that concussion recovery process in getting kids back to actually playing the sport they want to,” Smetana said.
Activity is encouraged, but kids should not jump right back in to the sport games or competition. Those activities should slowly increase until they are safe to resume full play.
She encourages student-athletes to be honest with their parents, trainers or coaches about their symptoms no matter what the situation.
“There is a lot of pressure on our kids,” she said. “We know college recruiters are out there right now watching these games and kids want to play as many games as they can, especially our high school athletes.”
She emphasized that it is important to take the time to recover after a concussion and to not risk playing, being re-injured and potentially facing even more time away from the game.
After about two weeks, if kids are still experiencing symptoms that are persisting, they may need specialized help. Symptoms may include visual changes, irritability, anxiety, mental fog and difficulty focusing eyes.
The UVA Health Sports Concussion Consultation Clinic is now open for Virginia youth (ages 12 to 24) who have concussions related to sports and have symptoms that persist beyond a typical recovery timeline.
“We wanted to be able to provide additional sports concussion resources to the community,” Smetana said.
The specialty clinic is designed to serve youth who are taking longer to recover after their concussion. After a few weeks, student-athletes will visit Smetana. They will figure out what symptoms are persisting, why they are persisting and find ways to mange the symptoms to get back to their sports.
There are a variety of treatments available depending on the exact symptoms. If dizziness is the symptom, physical therapy may be required. For visual tracking issues, it may mean weeks of targeted occupational. If anxiety is present, a mental health focus might be needed.
“The symptoms, if they are not treated can continue to present,” Smetana said. “We don’t want anyone to have to deal with symptoms for months to years because they are not getting the specific treatment that could help them.”
Smetana says the best concussion is no concussion. While preventing concussions might not be possible, it is about reducing risk.
“Especially at the beginning of fall sports, or at the beginning of any season, I always encourage parents and coaches to stay aware of policy changes,” said Smetana. “Encourage their athletes to follow those policy changes in practice and follow that appropriate play during practice. And, make sure that during games your athletes are following those appropriate rules of play.”
The clinic is referral-based from someone like an athletic trainer, coach or doctor. You cannot self-refer. Click here to find contact information for the clinic.
Watch the full conversation in the player on this page for more information about concussions in kids and the UVA Health clinic.