A Complete Guide to Swimming Concussions

Photo Courtesy: Robin Sparf

By Dr. G. John Mullen, Swimming World Contributor

Parents and coaches, pay attention. Concussions do happen in the pool. The below will help guide you through the risks, symptoms, and treatments for concussions. Be head smart in the pool with the complete guide to swimming concussions.

Concussions in Youth Sports

Five to 10 percent of athletes will suffer from a concussion during any giving sporting season; the highest demographic is athletes between the ages of 15 and 17 years, according to the Southwest Athletic Trainers Association (SWATA). Swimming is one of the most popular sports because it is generally safer than most contact sports. What you need to know is that concussions can occur in all sports. The risk is just lower in some, like swimming.

Approximately 2 million high school athletes suffer from concussions per year. Of those injured, 500,000 result in doctor’s visits and 300,000 land athletes in the hospital. The biggest concerns with concussions are repeated blows and long-term injuries. SWATA reports that 96 percent of Americans feel that it is important for youth athletes to be seen by a healthcare professional before returning back to the game, and I am betting that you are one of the majority.

What is a Concussion?

According to the CDC, a concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury. Concussions are usually caused by an impact or blow that thrusts the brain back and forth inside the skull. The impact can happen to the head, or it can be the result of a blow to the body. When the brain shifts inside the skull, it can twist, stretch and impair healthy brain cells.

How do Swimmers Get Concussions?

Swimmers can get concussions in or out of the pool. Common ways swimmers get concussions are:

  • Hitting the head when diving
  • Running into wall during backstroke
  • Running into another swimmer
  • Slipping on the deck
  • During dryland training

What are the Symptoms of a Concussion?

Swimmers are not immune to concussions. Common concussion scenarios include falling on the deck, hitting the head or body on the diving board, swimming into the wall, and even entering the water incorrectly. Polo players experience concussions from blows to the head from the ball and other players.

As soon as a swimmer falls, hits his/her head, or receives a violent blow to the body, the coaching team must take immediate action to look for signs of swimming concussion. Immediate signs of concussions include:

  • Confusion
  • Unable to recall events, time, or day
  • Loss of consciousness or “blacking out”
  • Change in mood, behavior or demeanor

It is critical that parents and the coaching staff look for the signs of a concussion because about 47 percent of athletes don’t report any symptoms after experiencing an injurious blow to the body or the head.

If athletes do report symptoms, the most common are:

  • Nausea
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Throbbing
  • Memory trouble
  • Tiredness or sluggishness
  • Light sensitivity
  • Pressure in the head
  • Trouble falling asleep or excessive sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating

If a swimmer experiences any of the above symptoms, or if the parents or coaching staff notice any changes, it is important to seek medical treatment immediately. Even if the swimmer is asymptomatic, only a healthcare professional can clear the swimmer. Coaches and parents do not have the training and expertise to diagnose the severity of a concussion.

How Coaches and Parents Can Help

Parents and coaches must have the swimmer’s health in mind. The steps taken after the swimmer receives a concussive blow can have a significant impact during recovery and on the long-term health of the swimmer. Remember this when dealing with a head injury:

  • Provide swimmers with the safe space to express concerns, pain, and symptoms.
  • A swimmer must NOT return to the water the day he/she receives a concussive blow.
  • Coaches and parents must not encourage a swimmer to push through the pain, and they must never dismiss the pain the swimmer experiences.
  • Be vigilant when dealing with an injured athlete. The swimmer must not return to the water if symptoms remain or before being cleared by a medical professional.
  • Play an active role in recovery and support the swimmer in doing the same.

USA Swimming and Concussions

USA Swimming has taken a proactive and firm stand on concussions, issuing guidelines for participation, training, compliance, and management. USA Swimming insists that coaches, parents and athletes all observe the symptoms of and care for concussions. USA Swimming prohibits swimmers from returning to the water after receiving a concussive blow until a medical professional has cleared the athlete. Clubs, Hosts, and LSCs are required to remain compliant and state concussions management and education policies.

Concussions are a serious concern for athletes of all ages, and effects of the injury can last for years. Education and management are key to protect a swimmer’s health. If a swimmer returns to practice or competition too soon after a concussion, they risk persistent, increasing or devastating consequences. When in doubt, sit the swimmer out.

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Rabia Syed
8 years ago

Colleen Anderson

Jennifer Keeber
Jennifer Keeber
8 years ago

Thank you Swimming World for this article, important for ALL involved in swimming to know about.

Jacqueline Ann Olivier

Interesting read!

Nick Wilker
8 years ago

Kerri McCullough

Kara Guenther
8 years ago

Alanna Dassoff

Alanna Dassoff
8 years ago
Reply to  Kara Guenther

: /

Abby Christine
8 years ago

Abby Louise

coach faisal hourani
coach faisal hourani
8 years ago
Reply to  Abby Christine

thank you Dr. John Mullen.
it was very good subject for all swimmers and coaches

Brendan McCoy
8 years ago

Návya Shah

Arica Woolbright
8 years ago

Kellie Eickstead

Janelle Gosch Burris
8 years ago

My daughter was swimming the IM a few years ago…it was late about 9pm….goggles filled with water she swam directly into the wall of the fly…..her arms hit the deck fully extended….everyone heard the impact. I believe muscle memory took over and she finished the race…lol! When she got out she had no idea the date or anything recent! A visit to the ER confirmed it! She had a great bruised face and an even better story..lol!!

Diane Martynowicz
Diane Martynowicz
8 years ago

My son didn’t make warm up at an away swim meet and asked not to swim backstroke. Coach said it would be fine. Flags were not regulation and he went head first into the cement wall. He missed months of school. His memory was not 100% for 11 months. And just recently 2.5 years later did he finally beat his pre concussion backstroke time. It’s been a long unnecessary haul. But my words to all parents. If you child hits their head. Make them stop playing. Not sport is that important. Wait 24 hrs to make sure they are ok.

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