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Head injuries and fall sports: How to protect young athletes

Between Aug.1, 2014, and June 30, 2015, a sampling of only 39 public high schools in Minnesota (8 percent of Minnesota's high schools) reported 704 sports-related concussions, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

While the concussions range from mild to severe, the point is, that each one is considered a brain injury and that's serious business. Additionally, this summer, a study from the medical journal JAMA revealed surprising results about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition that is the result of not one, but several blows to the head. In the study, CTE was found in 99 percent of deceased NFL players' brains that were donated to scientific research. Aside from NFL players, three of 14 high school players and 48 of 53 college players in the study were found to have CTE. As local football, soccer and cross-country teams begin games, it is important athletes, parents and coaches know basic and important information about head injuries, concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Sometimes the signs of a concussion or brain injury are obvious; the patient is unconscious or acting "out of it." But signs and symptoms are not always immediate. That's why it is so important to understand the main causes and symptoms of concussions and brain injuries which are often more serious than just a "bump on the head."

Symptoms of brain injury

Immediately following a traumatic brain injury, two things happen. First the brain tissue reacts to the trauma with biochemical and physiological responses to brain cells that have been damaged or even destroyed. The second, and more commonly known reaction, is the loss of consciousness which can last minutes, hours or longer. Other symptoms of a concussion or brain injury include short or long-term changes in thinking, sensation, language and emotion. Here are some of the physical symptoms a young athlete may experience if he or she has recently suffered a concussion or traumatic brain injury:

• Headache or "pressure" in head

• Nausea or vomiting

• Balance problems or dizziness

• Fatigue or feeling tired

• Blurry or double vision

• Sensitivity to light or noise

• Numbness or tingling

• Does not "feel right"

• Moodiness

For adults, here are short and longer-term symptoms you might notice in an athlete who has suffered a concussion or traumatic brain injury:

• Appears dazed or stunned

• Is confused

• Answers questions slowly

• Repeats questions

• Can't recall events prior to the hit, bump, or fall

• Loses consciousness (even briefly)

• Shows behavior or personality changes

• Forgets class schedule or assignments

The most important thing to know if you or a loved one has sustained a blow to the head is to seek medical attention, especially if you are noticing any symptoms out of the ordinary. The key to recovering from even less severe head trauma is rest. For young athletes sustaining a concussion, it is important to stop play and sit it out, immediately. Your brain needs time to properly heal, so rest is necessary. Athletes and children should be closely monitored by coaches upon resuming play.

Think prevention

Prevention is key to protecting yourself from serious head injuries. When necessary, wear a helmet especially in sports like football, hockey, soccer and while up at bat in softball or baseball. These are instances when a tackle or pitch can cause irreversible damage to an athlete who isn't wearing head protection. Keep in mind, repeat concussions cause cumulative effects on the brain. Successive concussions can have devastating consequences, including brain swelling, permanent brain damage, long-term disabilities or even death.