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What Parents Should Know about the Risk of Concussion in All Sports

The movie, Concussion, brings new focus to the problem and dangers of concussions in the NFL. Will Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist whose research of football players’ brain injuries led to the discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated concussions.

And, as the long-term dangers of repeated concussions is coming to light, parents and kids should be aware that concussions are not limited to the NFL or to football.

Just as with professional sports, football holds the highest rate of concussions in youth sports as well, accounting for 47 percent of concussions in high school sports (in part because football requires larger team rosters than most sports). But what about the other 53 percent of concussions?

A study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 determined that the high school sports with the 12 highest concussion rates per 100,000 exposures were (in order of highest to lowest): football, boys’ ice hockey, boys’ lacrosse, girls’ lacrosse, girls’ soccer, wrestling, girls’ field hockey, girls’ basketball, boys’ soccer, boys’ basketball, girls’ softball, and cheerleading. These sports all ranked higher than baseball, volleyball, and gymnastics, as well as swimming, and diving, and track and field for both genders.

So, it  turns out that even cheerleaders are not immune. A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics revealed that concussions were the most common cheerleading injury, outpacing ligament and muscle sprains and broken bones.

In fact, studies have shown that females in high school and college actually suffer from higher concussion rates than males in similar sports. For instance, female softball players experience concussion at twice the rate of male baseball players, and female players suffer a higher rate of concussions than men in hockey, basketball, and soccer.

Extrapolating from the study, Education Week observed that while stunts (53.2 percent), tumbling (20.5 percent), and pyramids (10.8) resulted in the majority of cheerleading injuries, cheerleaders were at more risk of suffering a concussion in practice (14 per 100,000 participants) than in competition (12 per 100,000), unlike any of the other 19 sports surveyed.

Clearly team sports are beneficial for kids and even offer educational value, including teaching team participation and leadership skills, so few advise that kids avoid any athletic endeavors. But parents, coaches, and kids should be aware of the risks and take steps to avoid such injuries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says that parents and coaches play vital roles in preventing brain injuries by enforcing rules, providing proper equipment, and reacting in timely and appropriate fashion whenever concussion symptoms are displayed. It also notes that helmets, child safety seats in cars, softer surfaces for playgrounds, and stair gates for toddlers are all useful in preventing concussions and other injuries in young children.

The CDC provides excellent resources for parents on this topic, including how to recognize a concussion, basic prevention techniques, how to treat the athlete, and why follow-up protocol is essential.

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Seth Livingstone

Seth Livingstone is a veteran writer and editor who has spent much of his career in sports journalism covering multiple Olympic Games, Super Bowls, World Series, and Daytona 500s. He covered the Boston Red Sox throughout the 1980s and 1990s before joining USA Today and Baseball Weekly in 1999. He maintains his membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America and is a Hall of Fame voter. Seth holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and has also worked as a substitute teacher (all grades and subjects). He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and has two grown children.

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