Concussions are a hot-button topic these days. We know substantially more about the science of concussions today than we did even 10 or 15 years ago, and our understanding continues to advance, almost by the day. We have been able to parlay this understanding into player-friendly rule changes in the NFL and other professional sports leagues. While it is impossible to completely reduce the risk of concussion at the professional level, our enhanced understanding is good for everyone involved in athletics.
Perhaps because there isn’t as much money or media bandwidth at stake, the issue of youth sports concussions — and youth concussions in general — doesn’t captivate the public’s attention in the same fashion.
Sure, President Obama went on the record a few years back with a telling, off-the-cuff, comment about not letting his hypothetical son play football. But the millions of parents who actually need to make those decisions largely do so anonymously, far from the glare of the limelight.
If you are weighing the evidence about youth concussions or assessing the risks and benefits of allowing your children to play contact sports, here’s what you need to know:
- The Issue May Be More Common Than We Realize
According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics (reported by the IB Times), one in 30 youth football players aged five to 14 will sustain at least one concussion this season. Put another way, about three percent of youth football players are at risk of sustaining a concussion in any given year. The risk rises for players at certain positions and in styles of play involving lots of open-field running and tackling.
To put this in perspective, concussions are more common in youth football than ankle sprains and knee injuries — injuries that, while painful and potentially career-ending, don’t have the potential to cause neurological damage.
- …But We’re Not Quite Sure How Common
Since it is among the most popular youth sports and has a well-documented record of causing neurological damage at the professional level, football is more closely studied than other sports. For this reason, we have a decent handle on the rate of reported concussion incidence among youth football players.
We are not nearly as sure about concussion incidence in other sports. While most youth sports leagues follow concussion protocols, under reporting is an issue. This is particularly true in contact sports that don’t require pad usage, such as soccer and basketball.
Even football isn’t as well-studied as we would like it to be. According to a report by the University of Iowa’s medical school, Iowa’s youth football system is currently undergoing its first thorough, scientific head injury study. For casual observers who had assumed that the concussion issue had been on the medical community’s radar years ago, this is certainly a troubling state of affairs.
- Recovery Takes Time
It’s often assumed that young people who experience concussions can return to the field of play as soon as their acute symptoms fade. This is a potentially dangerous mistake. Full recovery can take weeks, particularly after serious concussions that result in loss of consciousness. During the recovery period, headaches, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and other symptoms may be attributable to the initial incident.
- Successive Blows to the Head Are Particularly Troublesome
As the medical community learns more about the neurological impacts of professional football and other contact sports, we are discovering that patients who sustain repeated blows to the head in short succession face elevated risks of lasting neurological damage. This is true even in the case of “subconcussive” impacts — blows that don’t result in concussion symptoms. Over the course of a youth football career, a young blocker might sustain thousands of subconcussive impacts that can dramatically impact brain development and function.
- Concussions Can Occur Without Loss of Consciousness
One of the most common questions I receive from my Neurology Answers patients is: “can I sustain a concussion without losing consciousness?”
The short answer is: “absolutely.” Be sure to educate your children on the symptoms of concussions, which can include:
- Dizziness and grogginess
- Double vision or other vision changes
- Headache or skull pressure
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking
- Mood changes
- Sleep problems
Likewise, stress that they should be mindful of their conscious state (perception, awareness, cognition) after an impact, even if they haven’t lost consciousness.
- Rule Changes Can Have a Big Impact For Student-Athletes
There is light at the end of the youth concussion tunnel. Thanks to lobbying by concerned parents, many youth sports leagues have implemented player-friendly rule changes designed to reduce the frequency and severity of blows to the head. Examples include:
- Requiring helmets with more head protection in football, baseball, and hockey
- Changing the rules of play to eliminate or reduce high-speed impacts (such as during kickoff returns)
- Stiffening penalties for illegal tackles or blocks in football and hockey
- Educating players and parents about the symptoms of concussion
Safety Always Comes First
Parents and policymakers who ignore clear scientific evidence do so at their own peril. At the same time, parents and other laypeople should pair what science tells them about concussions with common sense. If the thought of allowing your child to play a contact sport that presents a serious risk of head injury makes you uncomfortable, no one can tell you to violate that feeling. Safety always comes first, not the expectations of your friends, colleagues, or family.
What’s your feeling about the risks associated with youth concussions?