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Concussions Might Affect Kids and Adults Differently

In Kids, Injury From a Concussion May Last Longer Than Expected
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 29, 2011 -- A blow to the head might injure a child’s brain differently than it would an adult’s, a new study shows.

On the one hand, that’s good news, researchers say, because the brain damage caused by concussions appears to be less serious in kids than it is for adults.

But the study also found that the changes in a child’s brain often outlast symptoms like decreased reaction times, memory and concentration problems, irritability, insomnia, and fatigue.

That means coaches and parents might be clearing kids to return to their sports while they’re vulnerable to reinjury.

“Those may be the kids who are at greatest risk for more severe effects of concussion,” says researcher Todd A. Maugans, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Kids who suffer a second sports-related concussion within a month or two of the first could experience a rare but devastating phenomenon called second-impact syndrome, Maugans says. In second-impact syndrome, the brain swells rapidly in response to repeated head injuries. It is sometimes fatal.

“We need to better refine that timetable for recovery,” Maugans says.

Understanding Concussions in Kids

The study, which is published in the journal Pediatrics, used imaging techniques to watch what was happening to the brains of a dozen kids ages 11 to 15 after they experienced sports-related concussions.

Researchers expected to see changes in the kids’ brains similar to what happens when adults are dealt a bad blow to the head. Those changes include damage to nerve cells or chemical abnormalities that suggest decreased brain function.

“We didn’t find that at all,” says Maugans.

Instead, they saw changes in blood flow.

In two of the youngest children, blood flow in the brain increased after a concussion. But in most children, blood flow decreased significantly.

In the case of a 13-year-old wrestler who had the most severe symptoms of the group, blood flow to his brain dropped by 60%.

It’s still unclear how circulation changes happen or even what they mean, but researchers found they can last long after symptoms are gone.

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