New research shows that about 72% of traumatic brain injury-related E.R. visits among kids are attributable to consumer products or common activities. Here's what parents need to know.

By Maressa Brown
August 08, 2019
Cecilie Arcurs—Getty Images

No matter how much parents do to protect their children, accidents happen and, in some cases, can result in a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) notes that TBIs are caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Not all blows or jolts to the brain will result in a TBI, and most TBIs are mild concussions. Still, an estimated 812,000 children (age 17 or younger) were treated in U.S. emergency departments for concussions or other TBIs, alone or in combination with other injuries in 2014, according to the CDC. Given that statistic, a new study on the products and activities associated with TBIs, published last month in the journal Brain Injury, is particularly timely.

Researchers pointed to 10 leading products that contribute to non-fatal traumatic brain injuries in children younger than a year to 19 years old:

  • floors
  • beds
  • football
  • stairs
  • bicycles
  • basketball
  • ceilings and walls
  • chairs
  • soccer
  • tables

Aiming to reduce the stress families feel when dealing with traumatic brain injuries and help set priorities for prevention programs, Bina Ali, a research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland, and her colleagues focused their investigation on the link between consumer products and TBIs in children and adolescents across different age groups.

"We found that traumatic brain injuries related to floors and stairs are common in children and adolescents of all ages," Ali explains. "Together, they account for about 1 in 10 cases of emergency department-treated traumatic brain injuries in children and adolescents."

Researchers also found that for infants and children up to 4 years old, home furnishings and fixtures were most commonly to blame. For kids 10 and younger, beds were found to be a leading cause of injury, and researchers pointed to bunk beds as "especially risky, as children can easily fall from the top bunk of a bunk bed while sleeping or playing and sustain a TBI." And in children aged 5 to 19, TBIs from sports and recreation, especially football, bicycles, and basketball, were highest.

All in all, 28.8 percent of injuries stemmed from sports and recreation, 17.2 percent were linked to home furnishings and fixtures, 17.1 percent tied to home structures and construction materials, while 2.7 percent were the result of child nursery equipment, and 2.4 percent could be attributed to toys and other products.

As Ali told CNN, little ones are indoors more often, so it makes sense that they're more susceptible to injury caused by home furnishings and fixtures, while older kids spend more time playing sports and might be injured that way.

One surprising finding Ali pointed out to CNN: Car seats were "the fifth leading cause of traumatic head injuries in infants. Car seats are effective in preventing injuries in infants when used properly in cars. However, sometimes car seats are used outside of the car as baby carriers. When they are handled inappropriately, they can pose a risk."

It bears noting that researchers didn't dive into the severity of injuries and data, which was gathered from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program (NEISS-AIP) and augmented with product information from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), for the years 2010 through 2013, only covered patients admitted to emergency departments.

How can parents protect kids from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)?

Ali and her colleagues believe TBI prevention strategies should include child behavior modification, adult education and supervision, as well as environment modifications.

What does this look like specifically? "Educating youth athletes, parents, and coaches about the risks of traumatic brain injury, enforcing game and playground safety rules, and properly using safety gears, like helmets, are recommended measures," Ali says. "Also, removing tripping hazards, such as area rugs, improving lighting, avoiding hard surface playgrounds, using home safety devices, such as stair gates and stairway handrails, and avoiding use of prefabricated stairs can help reduce injuries."

Danelle Fisher, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician and vice-chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, who was not involved in the study, agrees that the proper use of safety equipment, like helmets, is key. She also believes the research should serve to remind parents that "some surfaces are not ideal for putting down an infant" and to "use caution with bunk beds."

The findings should also empower parents to thoroughly research products, ideally on a reputable source like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission site, notes Gina Posner, M.D., a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, who also was not involved in the study. "Try to imagine a toddler climbing on it or pulling on it," she says. "Obviously, you want to secure everything to the wall that can be toppled."

It's unnerving to think that everyday items and activities might be at the root of a devastating, or even minor, TBI. But there's no need to live in fear, as the best prevention is often quite simple. As Dr. Posner advises parents, "Let common sense be your guide, and many of these injuries can and will be prevented."

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