While much of the news involving traumatic brain injuries in sports involves professional athletes, researchers are investigating how youth athletes’ brains develop and what impact contact sports might have on that development. A recent study indicates that as little as one season playing football could affect how a child’s brain develops, while another study suggests the risk of concussion in young athletes is higher than previously thought. The potential risk of permanent brain damage has some parents wondering if youth sports—especially football—are worth the possible consequences of lasting brain injuries.
One Season of Football Could Negatively Affect Developing Young Brains
A small study conducted on 60 children between the ages of 9 and 18 suggests that even as little as one season of football resulted in changes in how their brains developed. Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas studied children who played youth or high school football and had no history of suffering head injuries or developmental issues. The youths were given equipment that measured impacts to their head and participants were then placed in one of two categories based on data from that equipment: high cumulative head impact players (24 athletes) and low cumulative head impact players (36 athletes).
The athletes were given a scan before and after the football season to determine whether repetitive hits to the head affected a part of brain development. The researchers found that the 24 children in the high cumulative head impact category showed changes to their brain development.
“Our study has found a significant decrease in gray matter pruning in the frontal default mode network, which is involved in higher cognitive functions, such as the planning and controlling of social behaviors,” said study co-author Gowtham Krishnan Murugesan. Please post in slightly larger font
The study does not show if those developmental changes are permanent or if the brains were able to repair themselves over time. The study also only examined the effects of football hits, not hits in soccer, hockey or other contact sports.
Games More Likely than Practices to Result in Concussions
Although much concern regarding traumatic brain injuries focuses on the intensity of game play, a 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that practices are also a significant source of concussions. Researchers suggested that limiting player-to-player contact during practices could mitigate the risk of concussions. Overall, researchers found college athletes had a higher game concussion rate than either high school or youth athletes, but high school athletes had a higher risk of practice concussions.
According to researchers, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anywhere from 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions are caused by sports or recreational activities each year. That number, however, could be low because many people who suffer concussions do not realize it or do not seek medical attention.
Youth Could Be at Higher Risk of Concussion than Previously Thought
A different study conducted by researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital suggests young football players could be at an increased risk of concussion. For their study, researchers had athletic trainers on the sidelines for Northwest Junior Football League games over two seasons. Each time a player suffered an injury, the trainer stepped in to evaluate the player.
Researchers found that in games where trainers were not on site, the concussion rate was between 1 and 4 percent. Where trainers were on the sidelines, that rate went up to 5 percent. Furthermore, researchers also noted that athletes who suffered one concussion had double the risk of suffering additional concussions.
Data from Blue Cross Blue Shield shows that between 2010 and 2015 the concussion diagnosis rate in children aged 10 to 19 jumped by 71 percent, likely due to increased awareness about concussions. New laws meant to address youth concussions may also play a role in the increase in diagnoses.
Is Concussion Risk Driving Children from Football?
Increased awareness about concussions—driven by media attention and also by brain injury lawsuits against professional sports leagues—may be driving children from football. According to a report by NBC Los Angeles, some schools in California have dropped their football teams due to a lack of athletes. Overall, the number of students participating in high school football fell 3 percent in one year and 8 percent over five years, with many people noting concussions as a reason for pulling their children from the sport.
Stories like that of Dylan Thomas, who suffered trauma during a football game and died two days later from a head injury, could also be keeping young athletes from contact sports. Thomas was injured during the third quarter of a football game and lost consciousness while athletic trainers were speaking with him. He regained consciousness briefly and noted that he could not feel his body before passing out again. He died in the hospital.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, in 2017 there were 13 fatalities linked to football, either directly or indirectly. Activities related to the four direct deaths included tackling, blocking and conditioning drills, with three of the four direct fatalities involving a brain injury.
Research Still Being Conducted on Youth Concussions
The full extent of youth concussions and how they affect developing brains is still being studied, but adult concussions have been linked to the development of a degenerative condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has been linked to memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression and confusion. The condition, which can only be diagnosed after the athlete has died, has been seen in the brains of former football and hockey players.
Professional and amateur sports leagues including the NFL, NHL, and NCAA all faced concussion lawsuits and all have either announced approved settlements or proposed settlements.