Brain Health

Concussions and the Developing Brain

Our understanding of concussions has come a long way since the 1970s. Back then, concussions were considered a psychological disease, not something with a physical basis. We now know that concussions are indeed physical, and can even lead to pathological brain changes. But we’re just beginning to understand why many of these changes occur.

While concussions pose serious dangers to people of all ages, the developing brains of children and young people are especially vulnerable to certain complications. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a concussion?

A concussion results from a closed head injury. Closed head injuries can be hard to evaluate. We’ve probably all experienced minor head injuries, but more serious ones can include concussions and “diffuse axonal injuries,” which cause extensive lesions throughout the brain. From an outsider’s perspective, closed head injuries may all look very similar. So how can we determine their severity?

Generally, a concussion is diagnosed by how it disrupts normal behavior. That may include physical abilities like balance or coordination, or mental abilities such as emotional regulation and orderly thinking. Medical professionals can determine the extent of these disruptions through testing. But when children suffer a concussion, it’s often parents or guardians who first notice the changes.

How are concussions treated?

The best treatment for a concussion is rest. Specifically, brain rest, which includes taking a break from reading, watching television, and even having the lights on. This is important for anyone suffering from a concussion, but young people especially may be tempted to check social media, listen to music, or otherwise over-stimulate the brain. That’s why it’s so important for parents or guardians to play an active role in treatment. 

It’s also important to have the concussion evaluated in an intentional manner by caregivers who specialize in brain injury. For treatment to be effective, it’s important that the patient return to normal activities in a careful, graded manner. And if any activity causes symptoms to recur, the patient should be placed immediately back on rest.

How serious are concussions?

Although concussions are treatable, it’s important to recognize the seriousness of the injury. If patients, especially young ones, aren’t given proper time to rest, they’re at serious risk of permanent damage. This can be difficult news for children who play sports and are eager to return to playing before they’re fully healed. But an early return can be extremely dangerous.

That’s because recurrent injuries—even mild ones—can lead to devastating outcomes. Besides the risk of permanent brain damage, the brain can also lose its ability to regulate blood pressure. When that happens, there’s a serious risk of death. That’s why it’s critical to have a skilled caregiver evaluate the patient and develop a treatment plan.

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