Tips for preventing traumatic brain injury in young children and teens

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are close to 840,000 cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among children every year in the U.S. The groups most commonly at risk for brain injury are children age 0 to 4 and adolescents age 15 to 19.

Common causes of TBI

There are two types of head injuries: penetrating and non-penetrating. Concussion is a type of non-penetrating injury caused when the head is hit by an object, causing the brain to move back and forth. Penetrating injuries are more severe and occur when an object passes through the skull, potentially harming the brain.

Common causes of TBI in children include:

  • Abuse: Shaken baby syndrome and other forms of child abuse
  • Falls: Falling from a bed, down the stairs or in the bathtub
  • Sports and recreation: Activities involving balls, bats and wheels such as soccer, skateboarding, cycling and hockey
  • Vehicle-related accidents: Collisions with motor vehicles or bicycles
  • Gun-related injuries: Unintentional shooting injuries that may occur in the home when children have access to loaded guns

Head injuries can range from mild to severe

Because the brain continues to develop beyond the teen years, signs of traumatic brain injury may not be immediately apparent in children. Signs may also change over time. For these reasons, experts consider TBI in children a chronic disease process rather than a one-time event.

Depending on the extent of brain injury, children and teens can experience effects ranging from mild to severe. Mild TBI temporarily affects brain cells, but typically doesn’t cause long-term damage. Injuries that cause tissue damage and internal bleeding are more severe and more likely to result in physical brain damage. Severe TBI can even result in death.

Brain trauma symptoms

Your child needs immediate care if he or she experiences a head injury with loss of consciousness or amnesia and has any of these symptoms:

  • Changes in attention span, reasoning, thinking, language or memory
  • Headaches and fatigue, hearing changes
  • Impaired balance and dizziness, changes in sleep patterns
  • Mood changes including anxiety, increased aggression and impulsivity
  • Muscle weakness, motor deficits
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, vision changes

Mild and severe TBI share the same symptoms, but they might be more prominent with more severe injury. Additional symptoms of severe TBI may include:

  • Dilation of pupils
  • Draining of clear liquid from the nose or eyes
  • Extreme confusion
  • Numbness in toes or fingers
  • Seizures
  • Slurred speech

Symptoms may appear immediately or set in after days or weeks. TBI sysmptoms also can linger for weeks or months after the injury. Most young children and teens will gradually return to their normal activities, but they may need accommodations at school, including extra breaks, additional work time or modified tests while they heal.

Head injury prevention tips

Head trauma is avoidable in many circumstances. These tips may keep kids safe:

Everyday safety

Safety recommendations that help prevent TBI include:

  • Installing safety gates at the top of stairs
  • Installing window guards to prevent falls
  • Removing hazards to avoid falls
  • Securing area rugs
  • Supervising young children at all times
  • Using nonslip mats in the bathtub or shower area
  • Using safety restraints in motor vehicles
  • Locking up guns

Sport and recreation safety

Recreation-specific recommendations include:

  • Avoiding playgrounds that have hard surfaces
  • Avoiding uneven roads or surfaces when cycling or skating
  • Not sliding head-first when playing baseball
  • Obeying traffic signals when on foot, biking or skating
  • Skipping sports when tired or ill
  • Supervising children when they are around or using sporting equipment such as bats and hard balls
  • Wearing helmets and protective headgear 100% of the time

The UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program offers diagnosis and treatment for TBI in youth. If you are concerned your child may have a brain injury, seek emergency care and contact his or her primary care physician.


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