A spotlight shines on youth sports — especially high school football — in Arizona this year with the new requirement for concussion education and a mandated medical clearance before returning to the sport after a concussion.
But parents of younger children in other sports need to be aware that there’s a danger of concussions in many sports and recreational activities.
Just ask Tracey Fejt, a Chandler mom whose daughter, Tatum – then 11 – suffered a concussion more than a year ago when she was tossed off a horse.
Tatum is an avid horsewoman. That day in Apache Junction, Tatum was training a new horse with a history of “spooking easily,” her mom said.
“He spooked and he threw her into the fence around the arena,” Tracey said.
Tatum was wearing a helmet and the adults there at the time said she seemed fine. She complained a bit about a headache and just thought it was a migraine, since she’d experienced those in the past.
But an hour later, when Tracey got Tatum home, she started vomiting.
Tracey, a trained emergency-room nurse who now serves as injury prevention and outreach manager for Mesa’s Cardon Children’s Medical Center, took her daughter to the hospital. There, doctors ran tests and determined there was no internal bleeding, but Tatum “definitely had a concussion.”
Tracey kept her daughter off a horse for a month while she recovered.
A concussion is a brain injury that happens when the brain gets tossed around in the skull. And it doesn’t always take a hard hit to the head to cause.
“Whiplash, if it’s hard enough, can cause a concussion. Shaken baby can cause a brain injury,” said Brianne Butcher, a neuro-psychologist with Cardon Children’s Medical Center.
Butcher typically sees children when their symptoms drag on after a concussion.
Vomiting and headaches are just a few obvious signs of a concussion, medical experts say. But Butcher said there can be others that may not seem so obvious.
Children may seem off balance or complain of feeling “dazed.” Cognitively, parents may notice their children seem “slow” or have memory issues.
Parents may also notice changes in a child’s sleep patterns.
“After they’ve had a concussion, often they want to sleep more, but they have difficulty falling asleep,” she said.
But there’s another symptom that’s noticeable, but not connected easily by parents to the brain injury.
“The most common symptom from pediatricians is they’re just more irritable. Their fuse is shorter. A kid who is laid back, never had a temper, but after concussion they can be angered more easily,” she said.
Rest — physical and mental — is what is required after a concussion. Sometimes, it may take a day or two. But it may also take a lot longer.
In fact, researchers at Mesa’s A.T. Still University of Health Sciences are working with families who see symptoms as far as 20 days out from a concussion. They’re finding that those children feel a disconnect because of the need for them to not only take time off from their sports, but “unplug” from electronics and visually stimulating activities such as the television or the computer.
Tamara Valovich McLeod, who holds a doctorate, is an associate professor in athletic training and director of the concussion program at A.T. Still. The school’s been involved in a study for the last two years looking at how concussions impact student-athletes.
They also provide free baseline testing for children, some as young as 5, who may be involved in a sport where a concussion could occur.
“We’re seeing the injuries in practices and games and in sports you think of like football,” she said.
They also see the injury in soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey, which are all picking up in popularity in Arizona.
“Cheerleading has a high rate of concussions, especially if you’re the flier and your teammates don’t catch you,” she said.
A baseline test helps provide information for a doctor to determine the normal cognitive behavior and balance of a child.
Valovich McLeod said there has been a good amount of education for student athletes, but more may be needed for parents and teachers to help them understand what a concussion is and how it needs to be treated.
“Parents say, ‘I didn’t think the concussion would affect my child’s behavior, their school work.’ There’s this general lack of awareness on the part of parents in some instances,” Valovich McLeod said.
Information on baseline testing can be found on the school’s website.
“Do I think every 5-year-old needs to be baseline tested? No. I think once an athlete gets into levels where they start being more physical — maybe the age 9 or 10 range — you might want to have the child baseline tested. Some will say baseline concussion tests should be part of the pre-participation exam and (children) shouldn’t play until they have one. It is important. A lot of times if you don’t have that baseline, if the child has a concussion, there’s some normative data, but it’s not providing their information. As a provider who can clear athletes to play, you want to be able to do that using the best information you can,” she said.
More information is available at atsuconcussion.com.
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