Did you know a concussion is a traumatic brain injury? It can be caused by a blow to the head or body and can affect a person's memory, concentration, balance, and coordination - and more. Symptoms of a concussion can vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe.
Parents tell me frequently that they are afraid of letting their child play football and hockey or join the cheerleading squad, and it’s no wonder. Concussions are common in youth sports, and a recent study estimated that up to 3.8 million recreation and sports-related concussions occur each year in the United States. You’re probably aware that the sport with the highest risk of concussion in high school is football. It may surprise you that cheer, gymnastics, and girls’ soccer have similar rates.
There are a number of factors that can increase the risk of a concussion in youth sports. These include:
- The type of sport: Contact sports, such as football and hockey, are more likely to involve head injuries than others.
- The age of the athlete: Younger athletes are more likely to sustain a concussion than older athletes.
- The level of competition: Athletes who participate in higher levels of competition are more likely to sustain a concussion.
- Prior concussion history: Athletes who have had a concussion in the past are more likely to sustain another concussion.
What sports have more cases and why?
Here are some sports that have higher rates of concussions in youth sports:
- Football: Football is the sport with the highest risk of concussion in high school. This is because football is a contact sport that involves a lot of head-to-head collisions.
- Hockey: Hockey is another sport with a high risk of concussion. Hockey players use their heads to check other players, and they are also at risk of being hit by the puck.
- Lacrosse: Lacrosse is a sport that involves a lot of stick-to-head contact. This can lead to concussions, especially for goalies who are hit in the head by the ball.
- Soccer: Soccer is a sport with a lower risk of concussion than football or hockey, but it is still a risk factor. This is because soccer players can be hit in the head by the ball or by other players.
- Basketball: Basketball is a sport with a lower risk of concussion than football, hockey, or lacrosse. However, concussions can still occur in basketball, especially when players collide with each other or with the ground.
Why do these sports have higher rates of concussions? First, the sports listed above involve a lot of contact between players. Second, the head is not protected by a helmet in all of these sports, football aside. Third, the rules of these sports may encourage head-to-head contact. Finally, not all concussions are caused by direct head contact but can be caused by a hit to the body that causes the head and neck to whip around.
What can be done to reduce the risk of concussions in youth sports?
There are a number of things that can be done to reduce the risk of concussions in youth sports.
- Encouraging players to wear protective gear, such as helmets and mouthguards
- Changing the rules of sports to reduce the risk of head injuries (that’s likely outside of your control, but it’s worth noting)
- Educating athletes, parents, and coaches about the signs and symptoms of a concussion (click our blog link here for more info about how to spot a concussion)
- Monitoring athletes for signs of concussion during and after games and practices (check out our ongoing concussion monitoring program, NeuroWatch, available HERE)
- Taking concussions seriously and preparing your body to be more resilient (think lifestyle factors like sleep, hydration, nutrition, strengthening your neck, etc)
By taking these steps, we can help to protect the brains of our young athletes. Concussion is something we should seek to proactively address, but in most cases, not at the expense of denying the athlete the ability to play the sport of their choosing.
On a personal note: Much of who I am today as a doctor, coach and father was born out of my experience playing and coaching football in high school. It taught me how to work hard and sacrifice, create priorities, look out for my teammates and navigate the highs and lows of life through wins and losses. I’ve been asked often if I’ll let my son play tackle football when he gets a bit older. My answer is, “yes,” - as long as he’s interested in playing (he is) and as long as he does the proactive concussion risk reduction training needed to set himself up for success and reduce his risk for concussion.
We know more now than we’ve ever known about the brain, but there is still much to be learned in the realm of brain trauma and concussion. When used properly, we can take what we learn from scientific research and apply it to real-life scenarios - such as youth sports - and create better outcomes.
Dr. Joe O’Tool