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boys playing football

I'm the mom of two athletic, sports-loving little boys—including a 7-year-old who can't wait to play organized football and starts sentences with the phrase, "When I'm in the league..." (meaning the National Football League). So to say I'm interested in the discussion around concussions and youth sports is an understatement.

According to the White House, nearly 250,000 kids visit hospital emergency rooms each year with brain injuries caused by sports or other recreational activity. And a recent study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that the rate of concussions in U.S. high school athletes more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. While football is (understandably) under fire right now, plenty of other sports—including ice hockey, soccer, even volleyball and wrestling—can pose a risk to kids, too (and are sparking no-checking and no-heading conversations).

President Obama recently called for more awareness and research on the topic, which is admirable. (As the New York Times reported, private and public institutions have pledged tens of millions of dollars for research and education regarding head injuries in sports.) But the facts and figures around youth concussions are disheartening for parents like me, who love sports, love that their kids love sports, and want them to be able to safely pursue their athletic interests right now.

I had the opportunity to ask physical therapist Dr. John Gallucci, Jr., MS, ATC, PT, DPT, the medical coordinator for Major League Soccer and the author of the new book Soccer Injury Prevention & Treatment: A Guide to Optimal Performance for Players, Parents and Coaches, for his advice about concussion symptoms, sports, and how parents can keep their kids safe:

Parents: Are there any misconceptions about concussion injuries that parents should know about?

JG: It's a common misconception that people only endure a concussion if they hit their head and/or go unconscious. This is not the case. A concussion is defined as a type of traumatic brain injury that is caused by a blow to the head or body, a fall, or another injury that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull. Not all concussions happen because of a blow to the head and in not all concussion cases does the individual go unconscious. Additionally, signs and symptoms of a concussion don't always begin immediately—they may present themselves hours, days, or even weeks after the initial injury took place.

Parents: What are the signs and symptoms of concussions?

JG: Signs and symptoms include, but are not limited to: - Headache - Nausea - Vomiting - Dizziness - Changes in vision - Fogginess - Confusion - Sensitivity to light - Difficulty concentrating - Changes in mood (anxiety, depression) - Sleep disturbance (sleeping more/less) - Memory loss

If symptoms are present, immediately pull your child from the activity and seek appropriate medical attention!

Parents: What's your advice for parents of sports-loving kids who want to play and compete? How can you keep your kid safe without saying "no"?

JG: My advice for the parent is to let your child experiment with different activities. Sports are so great for children to learn skills like teamwork, dedication, commitment, and discipline. Yes, with sports does come the risk of injury, but injuries can happen to anyone, at any time. My best advice is to allow your child to participate but make sure that you're involved, as well. Be at the games when possible, ask them questions, and be their support system so that you're aware of an injury that might happen—at practice or during a game—and can have your child treated appropriately.

Parents: So you think—or know—your child has had a concussion. Now what?

JG: If signs and symptoms of a concussion are present, the following steps should be taken: - Immediate removal from activity - Take athlete to a physician trained in concussion management - Minimum one week removal from sports and exertional activities - Monitor symptoms; the athlete must be symptom free before beginning a graded return to play protocol - Get a prescription from your physician to begin the return to play protocol (follow physician's guidelines) - Full clearance by a physician trained in concussion management

For now, my husband and I are steering our older son toward other sports. Like President Obama, we'll "have to think long and hard" before we let him play football, and don a helmut for anything more than costume play. For now, I'm thrilled that Little League and the New York Mets seem to have replaced playground touchdowns and the Minnesota Vikings. But football season is just around the corner...

Tell us: Are you concerned about concussions—and does your concern influence which sports your kids play?

Image of boys playing football courtesy of Shutterstock