When the medical community started linking concussions to debilitating chronic disease later in life, researchers started looking into the frequency of concussions.
The results are coming in, and they are worrisome.
The long-term effects are becoming clearer. A lot of young athletes have concussions, and many put themselves at greater risk by continuing to play.
The consequences of repeated concussions made headlines in July with a report from Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. All but one of 111 deceased NFL players it studied were found to have CTE, a degenerative brain disease that causes aggression, depression, paranoia and progressive dementia.
The center has studied former high school, college and pro football players and found that the earlier they started playing tackle football, the greater their risk for developing problems later in life. In particular, playing before age 12 exposes children to repetitive head impacts that may double the risk of developing behavioral problems and triple the chance of depression.
Repetitive injuries can be far more severe, even fatal, in part because swelling from a concussion leaves the brain much more vulnerable to a second impact.
A study of 87 soccer players age 7 to 18 presented two weeks ago to the American Academy of Pediatrics found 40 percent of those eventually diagnosed with a concussion had continued playing on the day they were injured. Girl athletes were five times as likely as boys to return to the field.
Every state, including New Jersey, requires youth athletes suspected of having a concussion to be removed from the game. But often athletes don’t report their symptoms in order to keep playing.
Since 2010, New Jersey has required concussion-related training for high school physicians, coaches and trainers, and outlined protocols for handling head injuries to athletes and cheerleaders. In July, the program was expanded to include students participating in recreational and intramural sports.
Hard evidence of the magnitude of the problem came last week when the first count of U.S. adolescent concussions, conducted as part of the annual Monitoring the Future survey, was published in JAMA.
Of 13,000 students in grades 8, 10 and 12 questioned, one in five said they had sustained a head injury and been diagnosed with a concussion in 2016.
Nearly a quarter of boys had concussions, and the rate for those playing contact sports was 32 percent. Even worse, 11 percent reported having two concussions last year.
Even these numbers almost certainly underestimate the problem, since they don’t include the number of unreported and undiagnosed concussions, which are thought to be substantial.
We’re glad to see the medical community get to work reducing the risks, such as the Concussion Center established by Cape Regional Medical Center last year. Such dedicated efforts not only arrange the appropriate diagnosis and care for head injuries, they help educate the public on the risks and proper response when concussion is suspected.
Impact injuries that result in headache, dizziness, nausea or amnesia should be professionally evaluated. If they result in confusion, difficulty waking or staying awake, vomiting or seizure, get to an emergency room.
While it’s true that children and adults often sustain concussions from accidents such as falls and auto collisions, nearly a third of a million children treated for traumatic brain injury or concussion each year are hurt in sports and recreation. While team sports have many benefits for children, parents may decide they’re outweighed by the head-injury risks.
The way the research is trending, don’t be surprised if many parents reach that point soon.