As we cheer on our young athletes in high school and college sports, it’s important to remember how sensitive the brain is – especially in physical, contact sports. Athletes are at a higher risk of experiencing a concussion, an acute change of mental status.

“Following a fall or hard hit to the head, an athlete must be evaluated and treated by a coach or trainer,” said Victor Jaramillo, MD, UnityPoint Clinic Kenyon Road – Neurology. “The brain is very sensitive to minor trauma, and the first few minutes following a concussion are the most important.”

Typically, a coach or trainer will determine the severity of the concussion, and if the athlete can return to playing or if they need additional medical attention.

Grade 1 Concussion: This is a mild concussion, where the athlete remains responsive and can answer questions. They can move their extremities and have no difficulty seeing or talking. After a 5-minute observation period, the athlete can return to playing.

Grade 2 Concussion: The athlete may have lost consciousness for a brief amount of time, and is experiencing ringing in the ears, dizziness, confusion, or irritability. This is a moderate concussion, and the athlete should be observed for more than 5 minutes. A new evaluation should happen every 3-4 minutes to ensure symptoms are not digressing. If the athlete is unable to regain their normal baseline within this timeframe, they should go to the emergency room.

Grade 3 Concussion: The signs of an athlete suffering a severe concussion are: abnormal muscle movements in their extremities and face, dizziness, confusion, blurry vision, slurred speech, headaches or feeling nauseous. The athlete should be immediately taken to the emergency room for an evaluation.

“Mild concussions are the most common, and athletes can return to play after a brief observation period,” said Jaramillo. “If the concussion is grade 2 or 3, an immediate decision must be made if the athlete needs to go to the emergency room.”

While most concussions are mild, individuals who suffer many severe concussions are at a higher risk of developing chronic brain damage later in life.