Dangerous Concussions on the Rise in Youth Sports

A new report by the Institute of Medicine is calling for more research into the long-term effects of concussions on developing brains. 

The report, “Sports Related Concussions in Youth: Improving the Science, Changing the Culture,” looked at sports-related concussions among children ages 5 to 21. It reveals that little is known about the effects of concussions on children who participate in youth sportsnor are there conclusive findings about the effectiveness of protective gear, such as helmets.

The report concludes that everyone needs to be more vigilant when a child takes a blow to the head.

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'Culture of Resistance' Poses Real Danger

When it comes to youth sports, a “culture of resistance” may be exacerbating injuries. It will cause the player to lie about his or her injury in order to stay in the game, or cause a parent or coach to ignore them. This can result in children returning to the field too soon and suffering subsequent, more serious head injuries.

Dr. Frederick Rivara, vice chair of the Pediatrics Department at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Healthline that it's important for parents to grasp the reality of this threat.

He said parental attitudes of “I was always fine, my kids will be, too” are dangerous. “I'm 64, and when I was growing up, there were no seat belts. We used to bounce around in cars, and a lot of people got killed as a result.”

Many states, school districts, and sports leagues have rules that require children to be removed from sports activities and checked out before returning to play. But if children cover up injuries because they've been told that “you can't let the team down” or a parent or coach assumes a blow to the head is minor, this creates a dangerous “league of denial,” Rivara said.

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More Data Is Needed

The report also urges the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to develop a national tracking system for youth who suffer concussions.

“The fact that there is not a lot of data is a significant problem,” Tamara McLeod, a professor in the Athletic Training Program at A.T. Still University in Mesa, Az., told Healthline. “We can't determine how many injuries are sustained and, more importantly, what happens to these children as they recover.”

McLeod believes the “culture of resistance” may be overstated. As more becomes known about the long-term effects of concussions, as highlighted recently in the NFL, some parents and coaches have become more vigilant.

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Sports Concussions on the Rise

The report shows that this is a growing problem:

  • The number of people ages 19 and younger treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports-related injuries not resulting in death increased from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009.

  • Among male athletes in high school and college, sports resulting in the most concussions included football, ice hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, and soccer.

  • For female athletes in high school and college, soccer, lacrosse, and basketball resulted in the most concussions.

  • Youths who already suffered one concussion had a higher chance of suffering a second, sports-related concussion.

One of the biggest problems with diagnosing concussions is that the injuries are functional, not structural. Computerized topography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) do not always show damage from an injury, McLeod said. Instead, symptoms of a concussion tend to show up in the form of slower cognitive processing.

“We can't see (concussions) like a broken ankle on an X-ray,” McLeod said.

That's why it's important to have a child's head injury evaluated by a qualified medical professional with experience in recognizing concussions, she added.

Keeping Kids Safe

Hospitals around the country offer concussion management programs for children. By developing a baseline after an initial injury, medical professionals can better assess damage from subsequent injuries.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control launched an initiative a few years ago called “Heads Up: Concussions in Youth Sports.” Parents, coaches, and athletes can find a plethora of information online aimed at recognizing, preventing, and responding to head injuries.

Rivara and McLeod agree that sports are good for children, and the benefits of health and fitness cannot be underestimated. “That said, I think it is important for coaches to be trained on how to properly teach kids to tackle, or head, or play ice hockey,” McLeod said. “Canada has done a great job of changing the age at which body checking (a hard physical blow) is allowed and modifying rules, which I think is key to changing behavior.”

Tips for keeping young athletes safe from concussions include:

  • Reassure the child that it's “just a game,” and that it's OK, and even a good idea, to sit out when you're injured.

  • Parents and athletes need to be aware of the signs of a concussion, such as persistent headache, nausea and dizziness, or sensitivity to noise and light. When any of these symptoms persist, have the child evaluated by a doctor.

  • Encourage your child to tell an adult when a teammate, and not just himself, appears to be having symptoms of a concussion.

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