Concussions remain a concern in kids’ sports – USA TODAY
Ready to share carpool duty and spend weekends in the stands watching your athlete? Wait. Before you sign your child up for intense practices, body slams and end zone victory dances, you should know how contact sports can affect your child’s future. We’re not talking just about college scholarships or pro contracts, but potential brain damage.
Mark Cupp, a youth sports coach and father of three in Corona, Calif., knows firsthand how scary it is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury. After his 13-year-old son finished playing his last season of Pop Warner football, he started complaining of headaches, dizzy spells and trouble keeping his balance. Cupp was surprised when the doctor diagnosed his son with post-concussive syndrome.
“There wasn’t one big hit that we can say caused it,” says Cupp. “And the symptoms didn’t start until two months after his last game.”
His son spent the following four months in rehabilitative therapy. “He would wake up and feel foggy. That’s not a safe feeling, and you wouldn’t want your kid to feel like that,” says Cupp. “It kind of breaks your heart.”
Why there’s increasing worry
The long-term effects of concussions were the subject of the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith as pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovers a connection between brain damage and the repeated concussions suffered by NFL players. And the Esquire Network’s reality show Friday Night Tykes centered on the uber-competitive youth football culture in Texas. However, it’s not just pop culture that’s creating concern among parents whose kids play sports.
The recent deaths of NFL players Junior Seau, 43, and Tyler Sash, 27, who were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by hits to the head, similar to Alzheimer’s disease, dealt a blow to the football world. Recently, several players have decided to retire early, citing concerns about the impact of football collisions.
Fear of sports-related brain damage isn’t confined to football. Other professional athletes, such as mixed martial arts fighters as well as hockey and soccer players, have found cause for concern. U.S. soccer star Brandi Chastain is leading the Safer Soccer Initiative, a campaign aimed at youth sports hoping to eliminate the practice of making head contact with the ball — a move that accounts for one-third of concussions in youth soccer. Both Chastain and Abby Wambach, a soccer champion who suffered a concussion after heading a ball during a World Cup game, announced they will be donating their brains to researchers looking at how head injuries affect brain health.
Now, a new study by Boston University School of Medicine indicates that youth who have repeated blows to the head (in this case by playing tackle football before the age of 12) may be more likely to develop CTE, which has been shown to lead to a loss of cognitive function for NFL players and boxers years or decades after they’ve retired.
“It used to be thought that young brains had exceptional healing ability. Turns out, young brains probably damage exceptionally easily,” says Steven Miles, professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota.
For girls, the risk is doubled, according to a 2011 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that evaluated concussion data for athletes in 25 high schools over an 11-year period. It found that girls had about twice the chance of getting a concussion as boys in the same or similar sport (baseball, softball, basketball, soccer). In fact, girls soccer had the second highest rate of concussions overall, ranking just below football.
What schools are doing
In response to mounting evidence that concussions have the potential to cause long-term damage and have a devastating effect on young brains, every state in the U.S. plus Washington, D.C., has passed a “return to play” law, which varies in stringency by state and aims to reduce youth sports concussions.
The law includes rules calling for immediate removal of injured athletes from play, prohibiting same-day activity after a suspected concussion and requiring a doctor’s clearance to return.
Some states also require that awareness materials be provided to kids and their parents, that coaches complete concussion trainings; and in some cases, that athletes undergo baseline testing at the start of the season so, if injured, they can be more accurately assessed.
How to protect your child
Whether you’re considering a new activity for your child or are already a part of a sport squad, you can reduce the likelihood of your child experiencing a head injury.
Ask school officials or the coach what measures are taken to protect athletes.
Also, “parents should look for noncontact sports, especially for children at a younger age,” advises Keith Smith, former cornerback for the NFL’s Detroit Lions and owner of an i9 Sports youth league in the Atlanta area. “Let them develop the skills without the tackling and head-butts.”
But while concussions are a serious problem, don’t let your apprehension sideline your child. Playing sports can help kids stay fit, build character and develop social skills.
“All my life I played sports and I’ve learned so much — how to work hard, how to work with others,” shares Smith. “Everything you do on the field relates to going to the classroom and to working in a job.”