Dealing with Concussions and Head Injuries

contributed by Sheryl Normandeau (Calgary, AB)

IT’S NOT SOMETHING parents can bear to think about: their child sustains a head or neck injury while playing hockey. It’s a risk of participating in any contact sport, and fortunately, with the excellent protection afforded by modern equipment, injuries are infrequent. Genuine head trauma is rare, as helmets will absorb most impacts, but there is always a danger of concussion arising out of whiplash.

What should you do if your child suffers a concussion? And, most importantly, when is it safe for him or her to return to the game?

bigstockphoto_Speedster_515667There is a tendency to overlook the potential of concussions in very young players, as it is assumed that whiplash is a result of hits from behind and therefore relegated to the game of older players and professionals. Yet eager young players occasionally run headlong into the boards at a good clip and when that type of movement results in a direct knock to the head, it can cause concussion symptoms. Affected by such a blow, the brain is shaken within the skull, which may result in confusion, dizziness, nausea, headaches, memory loss, extreme fatigue, and problems with sight and hearing. In rare instances, a loss of consciousness occurs.

If a blackout occurs, the player should be removed from the ice immediately by a trained paramedic; this is a situation where extreme caution should be exercised, and no one but medical personnel should tend to the injured player. It is important to understand that there may be serious neck or head injury and the child should not be moved without the appropriate medical equipment.

Doctors will assess the child’s condition and do any necessary scans and treatments.

If a fall or a hit seems minor, but your child complains of concussion symptoms—even hours after the game is over—take him or her to a doctor as soon as possible. Don’t let your child return to the game or practise if the symptoms manifest immediately. This is not a situation that calls for “working through the pain.”

Coaches will recognize the symptoms and act accordingly; the team’s trainer (or sports therapist, if present), can make a further assessment. At the hospital, your child will undergo tests to diagnose the extent of the injury and the attending physician(s) will provide treatment advice for further medical treatment, if necessary.

Commonly, concussion treatment consists simply of rest. And plenty of it. Most importantly, your child should abstain from all physical activity, and even school work and other “brain” work should be avoided until the concussion symptoms are resolved.

Concussions have three grades of severity (“three” being the worst) and every child suffers a different level of injury, so a return to good health can take anywhere from hours to weeks. Always allow sufficient time for recovery—even if your child seems better and is anxious to play hockey again, first ensure a clean bill of health with your family physician.

It’s common knowledge that concussions seem to beget concussions, and so careful consideration should be given to a child who has previously suffered one.

Keep a running dialogue with all of your child’s doctors, and follow a few simple guidelines:

  • While helmets can’t prevent whiplash, they can cushion direct impact, and so a new, properly-fitted hockey-specific helmet is essential, even for pick-up games.
  • If your child is wearing a helmet that has been involved in a serious hit, replace it. Tiny, nearly invisible cracks could cause problems later on.
  • Do not buy used (previously owned) helmets. Do not use a helmet that is five years old or older.  

While it is tempting to save money by using a helmet that seems to be in good, or good-enough condition, a helmet is one of the pieces of hockey equipment that should be purchased new each season and ought to be remain in great condition throughout the season. 

Furthermore, the team’s coaching staff will teach players the best way to play to avoid neck and head injury, and aggressive hits will be discouraged. Moreoever, practised skating skills and sportsmanlike play can help reduce the instances of and potential for injury.

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