What is a concussion, and what does it mean for the child?

When it comes to football season,  it’s time to think about sports injuries. We frequently have children admitted to the PICU (or to what we call the intermediate or step-down unit) for observation, typically overnight, who have struck their head. They have had concussions. What is a concussion, and what does it mean for the child?

The term itself is centuries old, but even thirty-five years ago, when I was in training, the actual definition of concussion was a bit vague. What was usually meant was that the patient got hit on the head and either lost consciousness briefly or at least wasn’t quite himself for some period of time afterward. These days we’re more precise than that, but concussion is still a somewhat inexact term. This is mainly because of our ignorance of the subtleties of how the brain works.

The formal definition of concussion is a transient interruption in brain function. By implication, various scans of the brain, such as CT scans or MRI scans, show no abnormalities. Since all the imaging studies are normal, defining concussion is necessarily inexact. I’m sure one day we’ll have some kind of machine that detects the reason for the symptoms of concussion, but right now we don’t have such a thing — concussion is an entirely clinical diagnosis, meaning there’s specific no test for it.

There are several systems for grading concussions. Here’s how the American Academy of Neurology grades their severity:

Grade I: confusion, no loss of consciousness, symptoms last for < 15 minutes, has memory of the event
Grade II: confusion, may lose memory of the event but no loss of consciousness, symptoms last for > 15 minutes
Grade III: loss of consciousness and no memory of the event

The list of symptoms that can come from a concussion is a long one. Headache, dizziness, vomiting, and ringing in the ears are common. Various behavioral changes are also common, such as lethargy, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

What are the effects of concussion on a child? Years ago we pooh-poohed the idea that mild concussions cause brain problems. For example, football players were sent right back into the game after experiencing a concussion. We now know that is dangerous. As a general rule, we don’t recommend any contact sports for at least a week (some authorities say longer) after all symptoms have cleared. This is because a repeat blow to the head, even a very mild one, can cause severe injury to a brain that has not fully recovered from the last injury.

What about long term effects of concussions? The overwhelming majority of children who suffer a concussion, especially a mild one, recover completely. But around a fifth or so of children who have had severe concussions continue to have problems many months afterward.

You can read much more about concussions at the federal Centers for Disease Control, the Mayo Clinic, and the respected Brain Trauma Foundation.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Your Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must Face, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

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  • MSP

    Can a concussion or concussion-like injury result from an entrapment incident? In other words, a child’s head was trapped by an electric gate or other such device so that the pressure on the head was slowly applied, rather than by sudden force as in a fall, and the space of entrapment was large enough that the head was compressed but no skull fracture resulted. There was a loss of consciousness but CT scan was normal. Minimal confusion but little memory of the event. Lethargy and vomiting began a few hours after the accident and lasted for a few hours. Could such an incident have resulted in the same problems as a more standard concussion injury? If I wanted a consultation on this, what type of specialist would be the most knowledgeable?

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