As summer sports get underway, it’s important to remember bumps and bruises are a normal part of activities. Team sports help kids and adolescents form friendships, boost self-esteem and get physically active, but they also increase the risk of injury — the most frightening of which tend to be injuries to the head and brain.
Some 45 million children and adolescents in the United States are involved in organized sports. In 2013, team and group sports were the leading cause of injury-related hospital visits among older children, young adults and males. And research suggests certain sports like football, field hockey, soccer and basketball pose a greater risk for head injury.
Girls are at a greater risk
Teenage girls involved in team sports are more likely to sustain head injuries, according to a 2017 study that analyzed 27 sports in 147 U.S. high schools.
This is true even for boys and girls playing the same sports. Results from a review of 15 college sports suggests female softball players were two times more likely to experience concussions than male ball players. Another study of high school athletes suggests female soccer and basketball players endure head injuries more frequently than male classmates.
The exact reason for these disparities is somewhat unclear, but experts have a few theories. For one, girls may be more apt to report a bump on the head.
The strength of your neck muscles may indicate the likelihood of a head injury, especially during sports like soccer where athletes often make contact with the ball using their heads. Boys and men typically have stronger necks than girls and women, which may explain the lower rate of concussions.
Gender and recovery — the shocking difference
Research seems to suggest the post-concussion recovery period is longer for girls than boys.
A 2017 study of 212 male and female athletes between the ages of 11 and 18 suggests young women may exhibit symptoms of a head injury like headache, nausea, fatigue and irritability for a longer period of time. On average, girls reported symptoms up to 17 days longer than boys.
Results from one study of 144 women between the ages of 16 and 60 suggest women who endured a head injury in the two weeks before their period — when progesterone levels are low — took longer to heal than those with an injury sustained in the two weeks following a period. Women taking birth control pills were also slower to heal.
Signs you shouldn't ignore
Head injuries shouldn't be ignored, and there are some serious indicators your young one should be seen by a medical professional. This type of head injury often presents with physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms. Look for headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and irritability.
Other common signs include:
- Difficulty thinking and concentrating
- Inability to remember new information
- Blurred vision
- Problems with balance
- Sadness or anxiety
- Changes in sleep, including snoozing more or less or having trouble dozing off
Onset of these symptoms may occur immediately after the injury or appear hours, days or even months later. Adults caring for children should keep a close watch for worrisome symptoms and seek care when necessary. If signs worsen or will not go away, it's a good idea to see a doctor.
Rest, including a break in physical and mental activity, is the key to a healthy recovery. Jumping back into daily activities before full recovery can make symptoms even worse and lengthen the recovery period.
Another reason to report injuries to your doctor? For some, the effects of traumatic brain injuries last long beyond the initial impact. Issues with memory, reasoning, balance, communication and depression can persist for years. Head injuries can also lead to conditions like Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy.
Prevention strategies that really work
It’s not always possible to prevent head injuries, but there are some proven techniques to reduce your child’s risk of traumatic brain injuries. These precautions won't eliminate a child's risk for a bump on the head altogether, but they will likely reduce the severity of an injury.
Seeking out parks and playgrounds with shock-absorbing surfaces is one way to protect your children from serious fall-related head injuries. Wearing the proper helmet during activities like contact sports, bike riding, skateboarding, snowboarding, horseback riding, snowmobiling or riding a motorcycle can help prevent traumatic brain injuries.
Motor vehicle accidents can also cause serious head trauma. To protect your passengers, ensure older children and adults fasten their seatbelts, and small children are secured in the proper car seat.