Concussions and Head Injuries in Children
What is a concussion?
A concussion is a brain injury caused by an impact or hit (also called a direct blow) to the head, face or neck. A concussion can also be caused by a blow to the body that sends a force to the head, causing the brain to move within the skull. Your child can have a concussion even if they don’t pass out (lose consciousness). Your child’s doctor can diagnose a concussion based on the signs and symptoms. Medical imaging tests such as x-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans usually can’t diagnose a concussion.
A concussion may be called a minor head trauma or minor brain injury. It may also be called a head injury or a mild traumatic brain injury. A simple hit to the head without any of these signs or symptoms is not a concussion.
What are the symptoms of a concussion?
Symptoms of a concussion include:
- a headache
- nausea or vomiting
- being sleepy (drowsy)
- having a hard time waking up, falling asleep, or staying asleep
- having a hard time concentrating, paying attention, or remembering
- being anxious, depressed or cranky (irritable)
These symptoms will usually last for 7 to 10 days. Most children and teens will stop showing signs and symptoms and fully recover by 1 month. If your child has had a concussion before or gets migraines, it may take longer for them to recover.
When to get emergency care
Even if your child has already been seen by a doctor and you know the child has a concussion, go to your nearest emergency department right away if your child has any of these symptoms:
- a headache that gets worse after taking headache medicine and vomiting or waking up at night
- sudden weakness in the arms or legs
- gets more cranky, confused or doesn’t act normal
- sleeps a lot or you have a hard time waking them up
- vomiting that won’t stop
- slurred speech
- trouble seeing or complains that things look blurry
- has a very hard time walking, moving their arms and legs, or talking
Make sure your child rests for the first 1-2 days
Your child should stay home from school or daycare and avoid physical activity for the first 1 to 2 days to let the brain heal and prevent another concussion. Rest and avoiding another injury to the head are the most important immediate treatments for a concussion.
Rest means your child‘s physical activity is limited to walking and light exercise that doesn’t cause them to sweat. Rest activities will depend on your child’s age and can include:
- board games
- being read a story
- light reading
- watching TV can with the lights and the surround sound off
How can I care for my child as they recover?
The following tips will help you care for your child as they recover from a concussion.
- Give your child prescription medicines as directed by your child’s healthcare provider.
- You can give your child over-the-counter pain medicine (ibuprofen such as Advil or Motrin or acetaminophen such as Tylenol) for the first few days.
- Follow the instructions on the bottle for the dose your child needs.
- Don’t give your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen regularly for more than 2 weeks as it may lead to headaches caused by the pain medicine (called rebound headaches).
- Make sure your child eats and drinks normally and that they are drinking enough water.
- Don’t give your child any caffeine from coffee, tea, chocolate, carbonated drinks, energy drinks, and some over-the-counter medicines for 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
- Don’t let your child drive for the first 2 days (if your child has a driver’s license).
- Warn your teen that they should not drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, including cannabis (marijuana), as those drugs may hide signs and symptoms of a concussion. They may also make your child feel worse, or delay their recovery.
- Follow the Return to School and Return to Sport steps to return to activities safely.
- Follow a bedtime and wake-up routine.
- Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time each day.
- Do something relaxing before bed, such as taking a warm bath about 1 hour before bed.
- Limit naps to 1 a day and nap before 3 p.m., for no longer than 30 minutes, and in a bed (not in front of a TV).
- Don’t let your child have screen time (computer and cell phone time including video games, texting, and reading online) for at least 30 minutes before bed.
Supporting your child
Children often display mood changes and anxiety during recovery from a brain injury. Many children worry about failing at school or not being active. Worrying may make symptoms worse or prolong recovery. Let your child know that having these feelings is normal and offer encouragement and support. Some children may need support from a counsellor.
If you child is not better after 4 weeks, talk to your healthcare provider and ask for a referral to a pediatrician (a doctor who specializes in children’s health), a concussion specialist, or a neurologist.
Returning to normal activities
If your child seems to be doing well after 1 to 2 days of rest, they can start doing more activity, using the steps in Concussion in Children: Returning to School and Sport. Your child should start working on these steps within 5 days of the concussion.
To see this information online and learn more, visit MyHealth.Alberta.ca/health/pages/conditions.aspx?Hwid=custom.ab_concussion_ac_child.
Related to Concussion and Head Injuries in Children
For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information call Health Link at 811.
Current as of: January 14, 2020
Author: Maternal Newborn Child and Youth Strategic Clinical Network, Alberta Health Services
This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.