Sports head injuries among teens and youth on the rise

According to a latest CDC report, there was about a 60% increase in the estimated number of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries (TBI) seen among young athletes during the past decade.

The report says that in 2001, there were an estimated 153,375 traumatic brain injuries among people from birth to age 19. This number rose to 248,418 in 2009. Many of these injuries occurred among bicyclers, football players, and children in playgrounds. Basketball and soccer players are also at risk for TBI says the report in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Study researcher Julie Gilchrist says that the exact reason for this rise is unknown but, “I believe this is, at least, in part due to increased awareness.” She is a pediatrician with the CDC's Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention in the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta. She added, “We are hoping that awareness has gotten up to the point that parents, teachers, and coaches recognize the signs and symptoms of concussion and make sure that children are evaluated.”

“We believe that one reason for the increase in emergency department visits among children and adolescents may be a result of the growing awareness among parents and coaches, and the public as a whole, about the need for individuals with a suspected TBI to be seen by a health care professional,” said Dr. Linda C. Degutis, director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Gilchrist recounts the signs as symptoms as confusion, loss of consciousness (even a brief one), memory problems, headache, pressure in the head, nausea, vomiting, balance problems or dizziness, double or blurry vision, sensitivity to light or noise, inattentiveness etc. She warns that these may not appear immediately after the fall or injury. “It takes time for symptoms to develop. So if they are showing signs on Monday it may be because of something that happened at Friday's football game,” she said.

In the new report, some differences in injury rates were seen based on a child's age and gender. About 71% of emergency room visits for sport- or recreation-related TBIs occurred in boys; 70.5% of all these visits were for children and young adults aged 10-19. Children from birth to age 9 were more likely to sustain head injuries while bicycle riding or during playground activities.

Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, also says the publicity surrounding concussions is having a significant impact. “I view the numbers as encouraging,” he said. “Some people will say that the numbers go up because the number of concussions is going up, but I don’t believe it is.”

Cantu, who is writing a book about concussions at the youth level, believes children under 14 should not play collision sports until they are made safer. “They should not play collision sports as they are currently played,” he said. “Listen, I love sports. I’m not trying to get rid of sports. I’m trying to get rid of head trauma in sports, particularly at the youth level.”

To help prevent concussion, bicyclers and football players should always wear a correctly fitted bike helmet. Conditioning exercises can build the strength and skills that can cut back on injury. “Obeying the rules of games and strict officiating can also reduce injuries in team sports,” Gilchrist says. Cantu says 32 states had passed legislation mandating concussion education for young athletes, parents and coaches.

Jeff Mjaanes, director of the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says that awareness of TBI in young athletes is definitely heightened. But, he says, these injuries may also be becoming more common. “High school kids are bigger and stronger than in the past…They hit harder, the sports are more aggressive and they use their heads and helmets as a weapon,” he said.

Mark S. Dias, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Penn State Hershey Medical Center says that knowing the signs of concussion and getting prompt medical attention are crucial. The way to treat a concussion is to rest the brain, he says. In those first several days, one should have mental rest as well as physical rest…This means avoiding things like homework, not watching TV, or playing on a computer or playing video games in the first few days after a concussion,” he said. This is called cocooning, he says. “Rest in a quiet, semi-dark room, with no bright lights and loud sounds,” is needed he explains.

The CDC and the National Football League have partnered to offer the “Heads Up to Clinicians: Addressing Concussion in Sports among Kids and Teens.” This free online course is aimed at helping health care professionals recognize the symptoms of TBI in young athletes.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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