Athletes: How to care for a concussion
Concussions can be dangerous, so it’s important to know what to do. Athletic trainer Stephanie McKeen addressed some common questions, including when it’s safe to return to play.
What is a concussion?
The CDC defines a concussion as a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a hit or jolt that causes the skull and brain to move rapidly, causing chemical changes and damage to the brain.
Symptoms can present differently among patients, but some of the main warning signs of a concussion are:
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Excessive fatigue
- Feeling and/or appearing sluggish and just not feeling right
If an athlete sustains a blow to the head and starts complaining of these symptoms, it should be reported to an athletic trainer or other healthcare professional.
If a concussion is suspected, what should be done?
The first step is to remove the athlete from the activity and assess symptoms. If there is a qualified healthcare provider on-site, the athlete should be evaluated.
If a healthcare provider is not available on-site, watch for red flags that warrant a visit to the emergency room. These can include:
- Sever/splitting headache
- Repeated vomiting
- One pupil larger than the other
- Slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness
If the athlete is not experiencing any of these symptoms, you can wait to see your doctor (or other healthcare professional) in the office.
Once diagnosed with a concussion, how long will I be out of my sport/activity and what is the clearance policy?
Every person responds differently to concussions. Typically, symptoms resolve between 1–10 days.
If the athlete is in organized sports through a school or sports club with a healthcare professional on staff, they will complete a concussion return-to-play (RTP) protocol. Depending on the organization’s concussion policy and upon clearance by a qualified healthcare professional, the protocol generally starts 24–48 hours after the patient is symptom-free and continues with 3–5 days of progressive activities before returning to full play. A typical RTP progression begins with light cardiovascular exercise followed by progressive resistive exercise, then easing back into limited participation in a sport before fully returning to practice and competition.
How do I know when I am fully healed from a concussion?
There is no expected time frame for healing following a concussion as all patients recover differently. Positive signs of recovery include full return to school and/or work, safe return to activity following completion of the RTP protocol and complete resolution of symptoms.
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