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No athlete wants to sit on the bench and that includes your own children. But with summer upon us and a whole host of sports heating up along with the weather, it’s time to remember that there are times when sitting on the sidelines is the smart thing to do. If your child suffers a head injury – even what seems like just a minor knock on the noggin – taking a break from the action can save not only her sports career but her academic career as well.

New guidelines published just two months ago by the American Academy of Neurology require that “any athlete suspected of experiencing a concussion immediately be removed from play.” The key word here is “suspected.” The symptoms of a concussion include:

• Headache and sensitivity to light and sound
• Changes to reaction time, balance and coordination
• Changes in memory, judgment, speech and sleep
• Loss of consciousness or a “blackout” (but this happens in fewer than 10 percent of cases)

Except for loss of consciousness, none of these key symptoms is likely to be observed on the field. They will become evident only later. So parents and coaches have to exercise an abundance of caution. “If in doubt, sit it out,” said Jeffrey S. Kutcher, MD, from the University of Michigan Medical School.

Any time your child or teen “has his bell rung” – either on the playing field, in a fall off his bike or skateboard, or at any other time – it’s important to see a doctor. Dr. Kutcher reminds young athletes, “You only get one brain; treat it well.”

Old-fashioned concussion grading systems are no longer adequate and adults who grew up using the old checklist may not realize it’s been replaced with a protocol that’s more individualized and more conservative. There is no longer any timeline for safe return to play. Each player must be evaluated individually.

An athlete who has a history of one or more concussions is at greater risk for being diagnosed with another concussion, meaning both that it’s the active kids who bump their heads but also that one concussion increases one’s vulnerability to more. In addition, the first 10 days after a concussion is the period of greatest risk for being diagnosed with another concussion. This indicates that kids are getting back on the field or back into active play more quickly than is sensible. Keep in mind that no helmet – for bicycling, football, or another activity – guarantees protection from head injury, but kids should wear their helmets and those helmets should fit well.

Usually one concussion has no lasting effects and this leads adults to dismiss a head injury as unimportant. But concussions add up and subsequent accidents can lead to impairments of memory, motor coordination, problem solving ability, and even emotional control. Younger individuals are even more vulnerable than adults. Athletes of high school age and younger (and this includes non-athletes too, of course) take longer to recover than college athletes.

My high school age son flew out an open gym door during an afterschool skateboard session and landed – on his head – on the concrete steps outside. This sort of thing can happen to any kid, even yours. To make the ending a happy one – as it was for my boy – parents have to take action and treat head injury with all the seriousness it deserves.

That usually means sitting on the bench, maybe for the rest of the season. But better that than being intellectually and emotionally benched for the rest of a child’s life.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.