Younger Athletes Get More Concussions Than College Players, And The Numbers Are Rising

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Athletes in multiple high school sports, including football, appear even more likely to suffer concussions than athletes in those same sports at the collegiate level, according to a study released Wednesday by medical experts from the National Academy of Sciences. The report, largely funded by the Center on Disease Control and in part by the National Football League, examined a broad array of medical studies regarding concussions and confirmed many other conclusions, including the fact that football equipment offers no substantial protection against concussions and that young athletes who have suffered a concussion are more vulnerable to subsequent brain injuries when they return to play.

The report calls for even more research into the effects of concussions on young athletes, as well as more examination of how to diagnose and treat those injuries.

The number of children below age 19 treated in American emergency rooms for concussions and other traumatic brain injuries increased to 250,000 in 2009 from just 150,000 in 2001, according to the report, and football remains the major culprit. The report found that football caused more concussions in young athletes than any other sport and that high school football players were nearly twice as likely to suffer a brain injury as collegiate players. Other sports where concussion rates were higher for high school athletes include baseball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and soccer. For female athletes, the highest concussion rates come from soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and ice hockey.

In most instances, the report found, the symptoms of concussions subside in less than two weeks, but between 10 and 20 percent of cases report concussion symptoms lasting “weeks, months, or even years” beyond that. Athletes who have already suffered a concussion are at greater risk for future brain injury and that “a history of previous concussions is a predictor of increased risk for future concussions, although the extent to which the risk is increased is unknown.” Athletes who have suffered previous concussions may also take longer to recover, according to the research the experts examined.

While the report suggested common guidelines for treating athletes who suffer injuries — immediately removing an athlete from play or practice, treating the injury competently, and only allowing a return to play once all symptoms have subsided completely — it also notes that “current research does not indicate a standard or universal level and duration of rest needed.” The best way to treat concussed athletes is to do so individually, especially since research suggests that athletes who return to play before they are healed do so at an increased risk of another injury.

One of the major problems with concussions in youth sports, the report found, is a “culture of resistance” that keeps young athletes from reporting injuries and coaches and parents from properly treating and managing them. “The culture of sports negatively influences athletes’ self-reporting of concussion symptoms and their adherence to return-to-play guidance,” the report’s description said. “Athletes, their teammates, and, in some cases, coaches and parents may not fully appreciate the health threats posed by concussions.”

That, according to experts, could result from the fact that young athletes don’t know what a concussion is or is supposed to feel like, or perhaps that parents and youth coaches aren’t aware of how to identify and treat possibly-concussed players. So while more research is certainly needed, more education for young athletes, parents, and coaches about how to identify, treat, and manage concussions is just as important. The report specifically calls on the NCAA and the National Federation of High Schools, which sets national standards and rules for high school sports, to lead the way in developing education programs that would address that problem.

The report also found that football helmets, face masks, and mouthguards have no real effect on preventing concussions, echoing the results of previous studies, including one from the American Academy of Pediatrics that came out this week. In response to that point, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) urged the Senate to reconsider their legislation, the Youth Sports Concussion Act, which seeks “to protect youth athletes from the dangers of concussions by curbing false advertising claims and encouraging improvements to equipment safety standards,” they said in a joint statement.

Congress has in front of it multiple pieces of concussion-related legislation. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bill that would mandate baseline safety, education, and treatment standards at the high school level, while Reps. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) and Charlie Dent (R-PA) have sponsored legislation that mandates baseline concussion testing for all college athletes.

The big problem for addressing concussions in youth sports, the new report said, was a lack of research specific to young athletes. The report urged further research that could identify brain changes in young athletes who suffer concussions, figure out the impacts of concussions over a person’s life span, and evaluate rules meant to reduce concussion rates in young athletes. It also called for the establishment of a national surveillance system to identify the number of concussions suffered in youth sports. And it calls on major organizations, including the NCAA and National Federation of High Schools, to lead the way in developing education programs that will help coaches, parents, and athletes in youth sports improve their recognition, management, and treatment of concussions when they do occur.