Changing the Game
Reduce the Risk of Concussions in Youth Sports
The reality of youth sports can be summed up in one cliché: It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. Concussions pose a serious threat to student athletes, and both coaches and national sports organizations have taken action to address concussion risks and set policies for the circumstances under which concussed athletes can return to their sport.
According to a study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, concussion diagnoses for children and teens ages 10 to 19 increased by 71 percent from 2010 to 2015. Fortunately, these results also show that because of increased awareness, more young people with concussions are being properly diagnosed and treated.
Concussions can happen to anyone, but males ages 10 to 19 and athletes have the highest risk. Dr. Michael Wolf of the Orthopedic Center for Children at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia says 75 percent of the concussions he has diagnosed in the past year resulted from sports-related accidents. Football, hockey and soccer have some of the highest concussion risks.
Dr. Wolf emphasizes that a child may suffer a concussion with or without protective gear. However, he stresses that athletes should wear proper equipment to reduce the risk of injury.
In light of recent news and research, many youth sport organizations have instituted policy changes to reduce concussion risks.
Two youth football organizations have developed new safety rules. The National Football Foundation’s August 2016 guidelines require coaches to remove an injured child from the practice or game and get clearance from their Concussion Oversight Team before the child can play again. USA Football is currently testing a new format that reduces the number of players on the field from 11 to six or nine and eliminates kickoffs and punts to reduce opportunities for collisions.
USA Hockey now forbids checking of any kind in girls’ ice hockey and has increased the age for body checking in boys’ ice hockey to 13. The organization prohibits any check to the head or neck, regardless of a player’s age.
The U.S. Soccer Federation declared that players under 10 cannot hit the ball with their head, and older athletes can do so only under age-specific restrictions.
Chris Updike, director of coaching at Burlington County Soccer Academy in Cinnaminson, NJ, has concerns that these restrictions may result in improper technique. With an eye toward keeping players safe for the long haul, Updike says, “I’d like to see an emphasis on the proper way to head the ball starting at age 10 or 11 because it would become ingrained in muscle memory.”
“Parents and coaches should watch for bodily, cognitive and emotional symptoms,” if they suspect a concussion, Dr. Wolf says. The most common symptoms include headache, fatigue, blurry or double vision, noise sensitivity, dizziness, nausea and difficulty focusing.
“With concussions, 80% of patients recover in two weeks. However, 10-20% of patients can take a few months to recover,” Dr. Wolf adds.
Multiple concussions can prolong the recovery process. Emily Fenimore, 13, of Wilmington, DE, got her second concussion in November during basketball practice. “She suffers from constant headaches that range from a 2 to 7 on the pain scale. She has not had a single moment without a headache since it happened,” Emily’s mother, Mary Fenimore, says.
As she continues to recover, Emily’s school has given her pass/fail status and exempted her from tests, and it provides her with a quiet lunchroom. Emily’s extracurriculars are limited, too. “I never worried about injury or concussions,” says her mother. “In the future, I plan on limiting her activities to non-contact sports.”
When concussions occur, Updike focuses on easing athletes back into activity and observes them closely. “In an ideal world, every team would have a facility with stationary bikes and treadmills to gauge what level of activity is comfortable and see if symptoms recur,” he says. In lieu of such a facility, he recommends that schools partner with a physical therapy center.
Although the risk of concussion presents a frightening reality, awareness has made youth sports safer than ever. Today’s parents, coaches and players are better equipped to avoid concussions and to identify and treat them readily when they do occur.
Ariana Annunziato is a communications major at Drexel University and a co-op intern at MetroKids.