Sports Concussions: What You Should Know

Sports Concussions: What You Should Know

At last, sports-related concussions are getting the attention they deserve. From new National Football League rules to nationwide laws for young athletes, more is being done to shield players from the too-often hidden ravages of brain injury. But don’t let the new safeguards you see on Monday Night Football fool you -- athletes in the U.S. suffer up to 3.8 million head injuries each year. And kids, teens and young adults with still-developing brains are among the most frequently and severely injured. Here’s what you need to know to help keep them safe:

#1. Concussions are more common than you think…and not just in football. In one year, 400,000 brain injuries happened to high school athletes and in a recent survey 20 percent of college athletes said they believed they’d had a concussion in the past year. Girls aren’t exempt; they have 40 percent more concussions than boys in high school soccer and 240 percent more in basketball! Concussions are also a risk in ice hockey, lacrosse, field hockey, water polo, synchronized swimming, cheerleading and gymnastics. Often, they happen at practice. University of Colorado researchers found that player contact caused 70 percent of boys’ head injuries and about 50 percent of girls’, while heading the ball caused 17 percent and 30 percent respectively.

#2. Young brains are especially vulnerable. Head injuries are dangerous at any age but there’s extra risk for kids’ brains, which don’t fully mature until they’re in their 20s. Areas of the brain that are the last to fully develop are located at the front and sides -- the same places where head injuries so often happen. Those areas include regions of the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes, involved in higher-level skills like problem solving, making decisions, and understanding other people. And the young brain itself is more fragile -- cells are growing quickly and new connections are forming. In addition, a young player’s neck muscles aren’t fully developed and can’t absorb an impact as well as an adult’s.

#3. All concussions are serious…even if a player doesn’t totally black out. Concussion is a traumatic brain injury that stretches, tears, and damages brain cells and triggers chemical changes in the brain. Most athletes recover, but the process may take several weeks and must be taken seriously. A repeat concussion before full recovery boosts risk for brain swelling, permanent brain damage and even death. Signs of a concussion include confusion, looking dazed, memory problems, slowed speech, clumsy movements, personality changes and sometimes, loss of consciousness (even for a few seconds).

#4. All 50 states have “Return to Play” rules…but they’re far from perfect. The best laws include education for coaches, concussion information for parents and young athletes, removal from the game for suspected head injuries and requiring a doctor’s clearance to return. But a recent Associated Press review found that many don’t spell out which ages or grades are covered – or require that community leagues comply.

 #5. Injured brains need attention…even if players resist. Educating athletes of all ages boosts their willingness to report symptoms, but parents and coaches need to watch carefully, too. One recent study reported half of high school football players said it was OK to play with concussion symptoms. Players who’ve had a blow to the head, or head-jarring body contact, should be removed from the game immediately and should receive medical evaluation before being allowed to play again.

#6: Rules to protect kids’ heads and helmets can help. Limits on younger athletes that rule out brain-jarring activities like heading the ball in soccer and full-contact football practices reduce concussion risk. Properly-fitting helmets can also help. You’ll find football and ice hockey helmet ratings from Virginia Tech researchers, at; type “helmets” in the search field. But good headgear isn’t 100% concussion-proof. It’s also important for kids, teens and young-adult athletes to follow rules for safe play. Every good coach will teach that. 

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

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