Head trauma in childhood is terrifying – and sadly, common. Each year, 62,000 children experience brain injuries requiring hospitalization. Assessing the severity of a head bump, however, can be difficult for parents.
A concussion occurs when a direct or indirect force to the head causes traumatic injury in brain cells. Signs and symptoms of a concussion can range from mild to severe. So, when does a head injury warrant a trip to the doctor?
The obvious signs that your child needs immediate medical attention include:
- Loss of consciousness or changes in alertness
- Nausea, repeated vomiting
- Vision impairments
- Dizziness, disorientation
- Slurred speech or other signs of cognitive impairment
If your child experiences any of the above signs, head to the emergency room.
Barring these obvious symptoms, look for persistent headaches, changes in behavior such as irritability or increased tiredness, changes in sleep pattern, as well as memory difficulties. Your child could be more emotional, sad, whiny or angry. These symptoms could manifest hours after the injury, so keep an eye out for any erratic behavior for the next couple of days.
It is important to recognize that the young brain is at a higher risk for brain injury than adults. With wiring and connections still developing, a child’s brain is more at risk for a functional injury – making early treatment more urgent. Delaying care may result in worsening of symptoms, permanent deficits, or more lengthy recovery times.
For older kids who might be involved in sports, experts recommend that an athlete with a suspected concussion not return to play until he or she has been seen by a health care professional trained in evaluating and managing concussions. The goal is always to ensure a safe and efficient recovery as well as an appropriate return to academics and sports.
Even if you don’t suspect that your child’s head bump resulted in trauma, it’s a good idea to have him sit quietly and rest for a bit before running back out to play. When the brain is rattled, the injury causes an inflammatory cascade. This makes the brain more sensitive and can delay recovery.
If you have any questions or concerns at all, call your child’s pediatrician. I tell my patients that I would rather get a call that was an “overreaction” than risk missing a head injury that required medical attention. Fortunately, a vast majority of children will experience a complete recovery within a few days to weeks, especially when injuries are treated early.
Head injuries are scary, but hopefully knowing what to look for and understanding that you have a partner in your pediatrician will give you peace of mind.