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March 23, 2014

Young athletes face alarming risk of head injuries

Youth sports teams – of boys and girls – face a growing problem. More young athletes are being treated for head injuries, justifiably creating a growing concern among worried parents.

Their fear is compounded by a lack of reliable data and the reluctance of some young athletes to report injuries, fearing they would let down their teammates if they did.

Those are just a few observations from a report issued by the Institute of Medicine's Committee on Sports-Related Concussions in Youth. Its chairman, Robert Graham, said “more and better data” are needed to understand what’s happening and how to make sports safer.

In recent years press reports focused on professional football players suffering concussions following violent collisions. Those concerns have led to questions about the impact of repeated blows felt by boys and girls from the earliest youth leagues through high school.

This much is clear: The public is taking notice, and participation is being affected. The number of young people playing Pop Warner football, for instance, showed a 9.5 percent drop between 2010-12, some 23,612 kids. Some say the steep reduction could be traced to a trend of young athletes specializing in one sport, while others blame a fear of head injuries, especially among parents.

Female athletes appear no less immune to serious sports injury. Last year's report from the committee on concussions said soccer, lacrosse and basketball are linked to the highest rates of concussions among high school and college girls.

At a recent U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing, it was even suggested that the youngest athletes should not play contact sports before age 15, the time when most students enter high school.

A compilation of statistics by the Southwest Athletic Trainers Association is alarming. It shows:

  • About 8,000 children are treated in emergency rooms each day for sports-related injuries;
  • Female high school soccer athletes suffer almost 40 percent more concussions than males. Women basketball players sustain 240 percent more concussions than their male counterparts;
  • Emergency department visits for concussions sustained during organized team sports activities doubled among 8 to 13 year olds between 1997 and 2007.

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