High school football starts this week, which means that concussion season is about to move into full swing.

Thanks to parents, coaches and statewide groups like the Maine Concussion Management Initiative (MCMI), athletes are better protected from concussions than ever. But knowledge is power, and many still don’t know some important facts about concussions.

A concussion is like a bruise to the brain. It can result from any head injury, and even some blows that don’t seem to involve the head at all. I have seen pro athletes concussed by a glancing impact to the jaw, or even a hard hip check.

All athletes are at risk, but football and hockey have the highest rates of injury. Surprisingly, men’s and women’s soccer are right behind. Even softball carries a significant risk.

The symptoms are often vague. Athletes may complain of a headache, a feeling of disorientation or irritability. Athletes can suffer a concussion even if they aren’t knocked out. And studies show that many players will ignore the symptoms in hopes they will go away. Typically they don’t.

When an athlete has a concussion, in most cases rest is essential until symptoms clear. The fastest road to recovery is to rest immediately. Last week I saw two soccer players who told me about their concussions. One had returned to play without resting. His symptoms became worse and he ultimately had to take most of the summer off to recover. Meanwhile, his teammate had been concussed before and knew to rest immediately. The resting athlete worked hard to recover and was on the field after a week.  

One concept that is particularly important is brain rest. This means that athletes who need brain rest must not do anything that requires concentration. Reading, going to class, or using anything with a monitor are all out until the brain has recovered. Not all athletes need brain rest, but it can help those with severe concussions recover more quickly.

Computerized testing has proven a big help to those of us caring for concussed athletes. Tests like CogSport and ImPACT can be used to find out whether an athlete’s brain has recovered. Typically, schools will give each athlete an annual baseline test. If the athlete becomes injured, that test can be compared to one after the concussion.

Like any standardized measure, computerized concussion testing is only a tool. It can aid concussion management in the right hands, but it is just one piece of the concussion puzzle. Practitioners need to be trained in its use and take many other variables into account in determining an athlete’s safety.

Each season I see athletes who lose field time unnecessarily because of concussions. Many players think they have to hide their symptoms or they will be pulled out of sports. Actually, players recover faster and are safer if they have their concussions treated immediately.

Why is it so important not to return from a concussion too soon? In 2006, a young athlete named Zackery Lysted sustained a concussion in a football game. No one recognized his symptoms, and he returned to play the same day. Zackery later collapsed on the field and had to be rushed to emergency brain surgery to treat a hemorrhage. 

Today, Zackery’s legacy lives on as the Lysted law. It ensures that any youth who sustains a concussion is medically evaluated and cleared before being allowed to return. Since Washington state passed the Lysted law in 2009, several states have adopted similar regulations.

Maine parents, coaches and medical providers can all help make sure this concussion season passes without any tragedies. Learn more about concussions from your doctor, your athletic trainer or though the Centers For Disease Control’s Head’s Up program. Get your child’s school involved in the MCMI. And if you suspect an athlete has had a concussion, make sure they rest until they have been cleared by a medical practitioner.

Dr. James Glazer is a sports medicine physician for Coastal Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Freeport. He serves as a consultant for the Portland Pirates and the U.S. ski team.