Children often find themselves with a lump on the head, whether it's from a wrestling match with their older brother or a soccer ball to the face during training. In the past, parents thought these small bumps were nothing to worry about. However, new research has shown that injuries we once thought were inconsequential may actually have serious long-term effects.
The reality of concussion-related injuries
Greg Williams, former AFL player for Geelong, Sydney and Carlton, won two Brownlow Medals for his skill on the football field. But Williams can't remember most of his career. In fact, he can’t even remember one of his career highlights – the 1995 premiership.
Williams’ story is just one of many being told as new research uncovers just how damaging concussions can be. One study published in 2016 found concussions in childhood may cause medical and social issues later in life.
The research is sobering. Those who sustained brain injuries as children are more likely to die early or be treated for psychiatric illnesses. They're also less likely to finish high school.
Research contributes to raising social awareness about concussion injuries. However, awareness alone is not enough. We need a culture change in the way we as a society respond to head injuries. We can no longer brush these injuries off as minor incidents, knowing the damage they can cause. All head injuries need to be attended to immediately.
So how can Australian parents make sure their children remain safe, even as they engage in sports and other physical activities at school and at home?
The duty of care from schools
Schools have a duty of care to ensure their students stay safe. This includes making sure playgrounds are free from hazards which may lead to head injuries (which are actually one of the most common types of injuries in playgrounds).
Regulations exist for the maximum height of play equipment and the type of surface beneath. For example, in Victoria, the "fall zone" from play equipment must not exceed 2.5 metres, and impact-absorbing surfaces such as mulch or rubber pads should be installed under play equipment from which a fall is possible.
School teachers and carers should understand concussion symptoms, which can include dizziness, drowsiness, headache and problems with memory and balance.
If a child has bumped their head and is complaining of headaches or any adverse symptoms whatsoever, teachers should seek medical attention and notify the child's parents.
The duty of care from sporting clubs
Like schools, sporting clubs also have a duty of care to ensure their players stay safe. They should make sure that players wear proper safety equipment and that sports grounds are maintained to a safe standard.
A child playing basketball could slip in some water on the court, causing them to fall and hit their head. If organisers knew the puddle was there before the game but allowed the play to continue, the club may be at fault for not ensuring a safe playing area.
The dangers of concussions are becoming more widely understood among the sporting community, but sometimes it can be difficult to recognise symptoms if they are subtle.
The Australian Institute of Sport and Australian Medical Association say, "If in doubt, sit them out." They recommend any player with a suspected concussion should see a medical doctor. If a doctor isn't available to check their symptoms straight away, that player should not return to the game or field.
The future of rules and regulations
Even though current negligence laws account for injuries sustained in schools and local sporting clubs, more can always be done.
Work is being conducted in the area of protecting children in sport from all forms of harm, including injury, harassment and bullying. The Australian Sports Commission is working with the Australian Childhood Foundation to produce a new National Safeguarding Children in Sport Strategy. While sports clubs are not the only place children can injure themselves, this strategy is a step in the right direction towards preventing kids from experiencing the long-term effects of concussions.
Ultimately, when it comes to head injuries, prevention is better than cure. Parents should consistently aim to ensure their children play in safe environments, and seek first aid immediately if they believe an injury has occurred.