I always draw a sharp breath when I see the school's number pop up on my caller ID in the middle of the day. I know I'm not the only parent who kisses their kids goodbye at the bus stop and silently prays it'll be just another normal, uneventful day. This time, it wasn't. My 11-year-old daughter, Samantha ("Sammy," as we call her), had fallen and hit her head on the pavement while playing touch football at recess. I asked all the questions moms ask -- is she OK, how serious do you think the injury is? The nurse told me Sammy seemed well enough to stay at school, but suggested I watch her carefully over the next few days to make sure she didn't show any signs of concussion. The hallmarks are headache, confusion, nausea or vomiting, slurred speech and fatigue. And they're often not immediately apparent. And with spring sports upon us, we should all be aware of these symptoms and how to treat them.
Sammy did, indeed, get increasingly dizzy, nauseous, confused (uh, even more than usual!) and complained of wicked headaches. She couldn't concentrate. And her vision became so blurred that she couldn't read a word. Her doctor diagnosed her with a mild concussion and prescribed both physical rest and "cognitive rest" for two weeks -- as in, no heart rate elevating physical activity of any kind -- and no texting, video games or any other kinds of electronic stimulation. Research has shown all of these things to be mentally taxing -- even more so than schoolwork -- which can slow the healing process. Sammy was allowed only one hour of TV a day, which had to be broken up into two half-hour sessions.
We're not all that big on screen time in our house in the first place. But take away that and reading and anything active and I couldn't help but think: What the heck is she going to do for the next 14 days? Sammy is super athletic -- not the type of kid who would be content to just blob around in bed. This was all completely new and eye-opening to me. No one ever talks about how to handle that aspect of helping a kid with a concussion, right? I'll tell you two key things that worked for me -- about how to pass the time, as well as how to actually speed the healing process. Considering that nearly half a million kids are admitted to the ER each year with a traumatic brain injury -- and many more cases of concussion are diagnosed by pediatricians -- this advice may come in handy someday. (Of course, I do hope you won't ever have to use it!) First, Sammy and I raided the craft store. It was a goldmine. She spent hours and hours making friendship bracelets -- and have you seen all the other cute projects and kits that are out there, too? And since Sammy couldn't actually read, I got her a bunch of audio books (the entire Hunger Games book series downloaded from iTunes). Baking -- muffins, cookies, you name it -- also helped pass a lot of time. And we took a lot of nice, easy walks together.
What made the biggest difference, however: Her diet. A few days into Sammy's recovery, I remembered my New Year's Eve dinner partner, Dr. Michael Lewis, a physician who, after retiring recently following a career in the Army, started the Brain Health Education and Research Institute to continue his work on the role of omega-3s and concussions. Michael makes the case that omega-3s are the foundation of the brain and, if they are essential for the brain to develop, maybe they would help the brain heal when it gets damaged. There's some evidence that healthy doses of it may reduce inflammation in the brain and could even help it recover faster from an injury. Omega-3s are good for so many other reasons, anyway -- like heart health and mood -- that I thought why not give it a shot.
I mashed sardines into Sammy's beloved tuna salad.They don't really alter the flavor, but they do boost -- by a ton -- the amount of Omega-3s you get from just the tuna (while reducing the mercury). I fed her edamame, put extra beans and veggies in the muffins we baked, and sprinkled flax seed on her morning cereal -- all foods rich in Omega-3 fats. And I whipped up a batch of what I dubbed "concussion chowder," made with clams, sardines, broth and veggies.
Within 7 days Sammy felt better, and by day 10 she was able to read again. The doctor had told me the symptoms would probably last two weeks -- and that Sammy wouldn't be able to read or concentrate until the tail end of that time. I have no way of knowing for sure if Omega-loading my daughter helped her recover as fast as she did. But I believe it did make a big impact. I'd tell any parent to give it a try. At the very least, you'll have a kid who is happier and heart-healthier. And who doesn't want that?
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