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More study urged for young athlete head injuries

More study urged in young athlete head injuries

New football helmets are given to a group of youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League, in Akron, Ohio. It's not just football. A new report says too little is known about concussion risks for young athletes, and it's not clear whether better headgear is an answer. The panel stresses wearing proper safety equipment. But it finds little evidence that current helmet designs, face masks and other gear really prevent concussions, as ads often claim. AP photo

New football helmets are given to a group of youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League, in Akron, Ohio. It's not just football. A new report says too little is known about concussion risks for young athletes, and it's not clear whether better headgear is an answer. The panel stresses wearing proper safety equipment. But it finds little evidence that current helmet designs, face masks and other gear really prevent concussions, as ads often claim. AP photo

WASHINGTON — No one knows how often the youngest athletes suffer concussions. It’s not clear if better headgear is the answer, and it’s not just a risk in football.

A new report reveals big gaps in what is known about the risk of concussion in youth sports, especially for athletes who suit up before high school.

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council on Wednesday called for a national system to track sports-related concussions and start answering those questions.

Despite a decade of increasing awareness of the seriousness of concussions, the panel found young athletes still face a “culture of resistance” to reporting the injury and staying on the sidelines until it’s healed.

“Concussion is an injury that needs to be taken seriously. If an athlete has a torn ACL on the field, you don’t expect him to tape it up and play,” said IOM committee chairman Dr. Robert Graham, who directs the Aligning Forces for Quality national program office at George Washington University.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Graham added.

But the panel found evidence, including testimony from a player accused by teammates of wimping out, that athletic programs’ attention to concussions varies.

Reports of sports concussions are on the rise, amid headlines about former professional players who suffered long-term impairment after repeated blows. Recent guidelines make clear that anyone suspected of having a concussion should be taken out of play immediately and not allowed back until cleared by a trained professional.

Although millions of U.S. children and teens play school or community sports, it’s not clear how many suffer concussions, in part because many go undiagnosed.

But Wednesday’s report said among people 19 and younger, 250,000 were treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports- or recreation-related brain injuries in 2009, up from 150,000 in 2001.

For male athletes in high school and college, concussion rates are highest for football, ice hockey, lacrosse and wrestling. For females, soccer, lacrosse and basketball head the list. Women’s ice hockey has one of the highest reported concussion rates at the college level.

College and high school sports injuries are tracked, but there’s no similar data to know how often younger children get concussions, whether on school teams or in community leagues, the IOM panel said.

“One thing that parents question is, ‘Well, should I let my son or daughter play this sport they’re asking me to play?’” said sports injury specialist Dawn Comstock of the University of Colorado, who reviewed the report. “If we don’t have that type of data on the national level, it’s very difficult” to know.

There’s little scientific evidence that current sports helmet designs or other gear, such as face masks or headbands for soccer, really reduce the risk, the panel cautioned.

Still, it stressed that youngsters should wear helmets and other sport-appropriate safety gear, because they guard against other injuries, including skull fractures and face injuries.

“Parents deserve to know how safe their children’s safety equipment really is,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is pushing legislation to curb false advertising and encourage improvements to sports equipment standards.

“While we can’t reduce every risk, we should do everything we can to stop misleading advertising that gives parents a false sense of security.”

The report found that every state except Mississippi has passed a concussion law since Washington started the trend in 2009, prompted by a 13-year-old who suffered permanent disability after returning to a football game despite a concussion.

The laws address such things as criteria for removal from play and standards for return-to-play decisions, but the report said most are in the early stages of being implemented.

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