For a parent, the possibility of your child – your baby – suffering a debilitating brain injury is unimaginable – but for millions of parents, that nightmare is a bleak reality.
Children age four and under and adolescents ages 15 through 19 are more likely than any other age groups to suffer a life-changing TBI. Even between ages four and 15, the risks are high, and the stakes are even higher.
TBIs happen in so many ways: falls, car accidents, sports injuries, assaults. Know the risks. Know the symptoms and when to seek help. If your child sustains a brain injury, your knowledge can mean getting help before it’s too late.
What Signs to Look For
Kids experience the same symptoms from brain injuries as adults do, but sometimes recognizing those symptoms is a lot harder in children. Adults are often better equipped to explain how they feel after an injury, even one to the brain, than children are. Your child might not know how to put into words that they feel confused or depressed, that it’s hard to concentrate, or that they can’t fall – or stay – asleep.
Besides knowing which symptoms indicate a brain injury generally, you should also watch for the following symptoms in your child:
- Inability or refusal to eat (or for babies, to nurse)
- Changes in sleeping patterns – falling asleep, staying asleep, awakening
- Depressed or listless mood
- Irritability or crankiness, sometimes indicated by persistent crying
- Problems with balance
- Loss of skills like toilet training
- Lack of interest in favorite activities
- Changes in concentration or school performance
Just as it’s not always easy for your child to verbalize symptoms, it might not be easy for you to recognize them. Paying close attention to your child’s routine can help. Even though you can’t instantly see a depressed mood or loss of concentration, behavioral changes like losing interest in beloved toys or doing poorly at school can indicate these symptoms.
When to Seek Medical Help
There’s a simple guideline I recommend when parents want to know at what point they need to take their child to the doctor after a head injury: if you’re asking the question, it’s time to see a doctor.
I know this isn’t what parents want to hear. I wish there were clear-cut ways to rule out a TBI, but brain injuries are still very mysterious injuries. Even the factors that might reassure you if the injury affected any other part of the body aren’t enough to be sure that your child’s brain didn’t suffer any damage.
Think your child is fine if he or she didn’t lose consciousness? In theory, the logic would make sense, but many patients – children and adults – don’t lose consciousness even when they sustain mild brain injuries.
Maybe your child didn’t hit his or her head at all, but only suffered a strong jolt. Your son or daughter could still have sustained a concussion from the force of the soft brain hitting the hard inside of the skull. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of concussions – they can lead to long-term problems, especially if your child suffers numerous ones throughout their life.
You’d think not showing any symptoms of a brain injury would indicate that you don’t have one, right? Unfortunately, feeling fine doesn’t always mean that your child is fine. Between 20 and 50 percent of patients with an epidural hematoma – potentially deadly damage to the brain – experience a phenomenon called a lucid interval, in which they improve temporarily before their condition deteriorates.
If the blow to the head was serious enough to worry you or if you notice any behavioral changes, don’t ignore that gnawing feeling that something is wrong – you could very well be right.
When it comes to your child’s life, always err on the side of caution. Get your child to a hospital right away after a head injury.
The best way to deal with a TBI is to prevent one before it happens. While you can’t eliminate all possible risks – after all, brain injuries happen in so many, often unexpected, ways. However, Mayo Clinic provides tips for protecting your children, including:
- Making sure they always wear seat belts in the car and seating them appropriately – in the right child safety seats for their sizes and away from the front seat of the car, where air bags can deploy powerfully enough to harm a young child.
- Being sure that your children are never passengers in the vehicle of a driver impaired by alcohol or drug use.
- Insisting that your children wear the right safety helmets for all sports or physical activities they engage in, from football and baseball to cycling, horseback riding, and skiing. Choose to take your kids to playgrounds that have a shock-absorbing floor, so that any falls that do happen will cause less serious injuries.
Do you know which sports are the most dangerous for kids? Cycling results in almost twice as many head injuries as football among children age 14 and younger, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
- Injury-proofing your home. Install safety gates at the top of staircases and keeping steps free of clutter. Use window guards so that your children can’t accidentally fall out of a window, and always keep your kids away from balconies or fire escapes. Prevent slips in the bathroom with nonslip mats and throughout the rest of your home by making sure area rugs are securely in place.
Traumatic brain injuries can change a child’s life in an instant, and they happen every minute of every day. Knowing how to prevent them and how to recognize them can help you be prepared for an injury that, hopefully, will never happen.