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Is A Child's Headache The Day After A Football Game Cause For Concern? You Be The Judge

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"Mom, I still have a headache." If you are a mom of a teenager, you probably hear them say that every day for various reasons. Life is tough when you are 13- or 14-years-old. You study too much, or you watch too much TV, or play too many video games. You get dehydrated from sports or just stressed by peers and hormones. You get headaches. Who knows why? A headache isn't a big deal, right? So why on this Wednesday morning did my son's announcement send an icy shiver down my spine? That he plays his 8th grade football games on Tuesday nights, that's why!

Last season, he was a back-up running back. As any mother would, I paid particularly close attention when an opponent brought him down with a crunching tackle.  So I was not sad when he announced that, this year, he would be just be playing defense. Defense was just his thing, he said. Fine by me. I preferred for him to be the one doing the tackling (correctly, of course, with his head up and not leading with his helmet). than the one being tackled. This season, of course, I had an additional reason to be watching him closely: in order to monitor the condition of his back after the stress fracture he suffered in February. I have been focusing like a laser beam on his play, and watching for any twist, gimp or limp. I felt I could key in on any discomfort he was experiencing, even before his central nervous could get the message and radiate pain. 7th grade football running back getting tackled

So with my son playing only defense, and wearing a brand new, state-of-the-art helmet, I should not have been so worried about a head injury. Right? Right???

So, on the Wednesday morning after his Tuesday night game, I was just being a paranoid, over-protective, hyper mom in worrying about his headache. Right?

Opening Statement

So I ask you to be judge and jury and decide whether I did the right thing. I have been a football mom for five (and now a half) seasons. I pay attention to my kid. I buy the correct gear. (OK, please do not judge the lucky pants) I make sure he is appropriately hydrated. Mouth guard? Check. Helmet fitting properly? Of course! Proper shoes? You bet. I am a MomsTeam-educated parent, after all! I read ALL the articles on concussions on the site.  I know the symptoms, the causes, the effects, and how concussions are managed. So, why did my son's headache have my stomach churning this week? Where did I go wrong? Did I go wrong?

If it please the court

The game had not gone well on Tuesday. My son's team lost its first game of the season. Not a blow out, just another well-coached team of impressive athletes. It happens. The team was disconsolate. My husband and I gave our son space to be upset and process the loss. Despite the team lost, homework still needed to be done and the world still was spinning under a beautiful eclipsing Blood Moon. CLUE 1: He "just hurt everywhere."  I had a hunch a victory would have cured all that ailed him. Homework made his head hurt. Algebra was impossible to calculate as he re-played every down he wished he had back. We stayed up later than usual. He was not really sleepy, but I finally made him go to bed. Tomorrow things would look better, I thought.


He woke up to a Wednesday morning with the math homework still not done, needing to go to school early for a project, and yes, the team had still lost. There were no magic homework elves to miraculously do the forgotten problems for him. We were rushing, racing around to find his lunch, when my son, slumped in a chair, announced to me CLUE TWO: "Mom, I still have a headache." So, the race stopped and the mom went to work. How does it hurt? Where does it hurt? Does it hurt because you did not do your math last night? Does it hurt because you hit your head in the game and you are not telling me? I was really trying to stay calm, but I spit the questions out faster than my poor 14-year old could formulate answers. All I got back was, "I don't know. My head just hurts." 

I got a flashlight out and checked his pupils. Dilating pupils are a sign of possible brain injury, right? He looked fine.  Meanwhile, my husband was questioning why all the lights were out and why I was sitting on top of our kid with a flashlight in his face. He joked, "Did he confess to a crime?" I explained the situation. Dad, who is even more vigilant than I am, confessed that he had not seen a hard hit. In fact, he wished he had seen a lot harder hits from the defense. OK. He's not helping. My son, my husband and I finally concluded that all was reasonably normal and I drove my son to middle school and started off to my job north of town.

About 30 minutes later, while I was still fighting traffic, the phone rang. It was my son. I asked what he had left behind. No, it wasn't that at all! His head really hurt. He wanted me to pick him from school. Could my kid really have a concussion? What is going on here? I almost did a U-turn on a major highway. Eventually, I got back to the school and gathered my sick child to go home and reassess the situation.

Held in contempt

CLUE THREE : The confession. Come to find out that he thought he had hit his head hard in the PREVIOUS week's game. He did not notice it, because they had won a tough game. He tried to fire up the Defense in Tuesday's night game, and helmet-knocked the middle linebacker, at which point his head started to hurt again.

At this point, I started calling around to get him in to see a doctor. I had made him get an ImPACT baseline test 18 months ago. To add to my stress, the doctor's office was located in the same hospital where the Ebola patient was being treated, and had just died. Needless to say, the hospital campus was a madhouse, swarming with media. The group sent me to another location. No one could see my son until 7:30 the next morning. Okay. I took a deep breath.

My son perked back up. He said he was feeling well enough to watch T.V. I remember reading that concussed athletes need cognitive rest after a concussion, so that was out. I was watching him for other concussion signs, like confusion, sensitivity to light, being overly emotional, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea or vomiting.  The fact is that, even on his best day, my son is confused because he's 14, his memory problem is usually because he forgets to take his lunch from home, Drowsy? Yup, because he is exhausted from a day of study and athletics, andfrom getting up too early, and being irritated is a constant, especially with me for being a mom and always asking a thousand questions. So my dear jury, on the 8 leading signs of a concussion, my child walks around with 4 on a daily basis. So do must 14-year-old boys! The headache made it 5 symptoms and perhaps tipped the scale. No loss of consciousness, double vision or vomiting, thank goodness. In fact, if anyone was sick to the stomach, it was me: sick with worry. 


The day wore on, and he seems to have had a miraculous recovery, just in time to get back to school for lunch and then off to football practice! My husband suggests that a visit to the athletic trainer might be a good idea. I suggest following up on missed assignments, but tell him that, under no circumstances, should he practice with the team! I pick up the car pool group at the appointed time. My son is joyous. Coach has looked him over and thinks he looks okay. Unfortunately, the athletic trainer was not at school in the afternoon. CLUE FOUR:  We have a normal evening, which means lots of homework. No complaints of a headache. In fact he is completely asymptomatic. My boys ( son and husband) think I have, once again, overreacted and that a doctor visit is not needed. Would I be ok with a trip to the athletic trainer to just report what happened? "Come on, mom," my sons begs. "It is sooooooo early in the morning." Now, the one with all the symptoms of a concussion is ME! My head is swimming, I am confused, I am tired, downright dizzy, and my vision is blurred, and yes, I have a headache. This mom thing is stressful. Dear jury, judge me gently here. I agreed with them. I backed down. I, too, thought it might be a false alarm.

Fast forward to Thursday morning. Everyone is up and at'em, ready for the day. Please go early and see the trainer, I told my son. So what happens? I get a text from my son saying he missed the athletic trainer, but promised he would see him before practice. My nausea has not subsided. I feel the eyes of Peyton and Eli's mom, Olivia Manning, staring at the back of my head as I tried to catch up on my missed work. What had I done? It was just a headache, right? Right?

At 2:00 p.m., another call from my son. "Mom, my head hurts again,"  he tells me. At this point, I went ballistic and into crisis mode. I called everyone I could think of to see my son ASAP. Our dear pediatrician, who has been part of our family team for about 19 years, agreed to see him in an hour. I raced to school to find the team already practicing. I parked the car and calmly walked across a field of 100+ 8th grade boys to find the head coach, cheerfully saying hello to friends and high-fiving players along the way as I made my way to the head of the line, at which point I heard my son yell out, "MOM? You aren't supposed to be here."  I ignored him, I marched up the head coach and told him that I wanted my kid STAT, that he still had a headache and a concussion had not been ruled out. The coach gladly acquiesced. I think he realized that J.J. Watt would not have been able to stop me from taking my kid off the field.

The verdict

So it was off to the pediatrician's office we went, where a very comical scene unfolds in the waiting room. My almost six-foot son was sitting next to a 3-year-old who wanted to color a picture of a truck and needed help. I was so glad to see the pediatrician walk through the door. He checked my son out, and listened to both of our stories (he said v. she said). The verdict?  In favor of my son! There was nothing on which to base a conclusive diagnosis of a concussion, but he still needed to retake the ImPACT test with the athletic trainer at school just to be sure. The doctor also asked him to drink extra fluids, not to play video or phone games, and to get some extra sleep, just so the brain could get a little rest. (Protocol for all head trauma)

Thankfully, my story ended well. But, why was it so hard? Why is it a story at all? If our boy had a broken arm, we would know immediately. I have done that drill a time or two with two athletic children. Why, when it comes to "gray matter" is there so large a gray area when it comes to what to do? I certainly did not want to end his season with a concussion diagnosis, but would have done so without hesitation. His brain is way too important to take any chances. As prepared as I felt I was, I ended up concluding, sadly, that I didn't know diddly. 

But put yourself in my shoes. Will you, a jury of my peers, convict me of being a poor sports mother? Or will you show me mercy so I can spend another four and a half years sitting in uncomfortable aluminum bleachers and eating stale nachos and burnt stadium popcorn? I throw myself on the mercy of the court. The defense rests!