A new study suggests that the rate of concussions in young athletes more than doubled from 2005 to 2015, an alarming trend that has some safety advocates calling for more to be done to protect youth who play organized sports. Approximately 300,000 youths involved in sports suffer a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI)—also known as a concussion—annually, according to researchers. Given the potential for long-term effects and complications related to a TBI, the study has important implications for organized youth sports.
What Did the Recent TBI Study Find?
The study, presented at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine annual meeting, examined the annual youth concussion rate related to participation in high school sports. Among the issues researchers analyzed were whether certain sports were linked to an increased risk of mild traumatic brain injuries and whether the enactment of TBI legislation had any impact on the rate of concussions.
Researchers examined injury data from academic years 2005-2006 through 2014-2015. What they found:
- The number of overall concussions more than doubled between 2005-2006 and 2014-2015.
- The overall proportion of concussions compared with other injuries also more than doubled.
- Those most likely to suffer a concussion were involved in girls’ soccer.
As a comparison, in girls’ soccer, mild traumatic brain injuries made up 34.5 percent of the percentage of total soccer injuries. In boys’ football, the proportion of concussions for 2014-2015 was almost 25 percent.
“The overall rate and proportion of concussions increased significantly post-TBI law enactment, suggesting an association between the passage of TBI laws and concussion incidences,” researchers wrote. They concluded that further research should identify specific risk factors for a brain injury and develop methods to protect young athletes from a concussion.
Researchers don’t know, however, if the increase in reported concussions is because more concussions are occurring or if it is because legislation changes and media focus on brain injuries has increased the rate of diagnosis. With the increased focus on injuries to the brain, athletes and coaches may be more alert for signs of a TBI and more likely to seek treatment than before.
What Does the Increased Youth Concussion Rate Mean for Student Athletes?
Concussions—especially those experienced by youths, whose brains are still developing—can have devastating long-term consequences. Traumatic brain injuries, even mild injuries, are linked to problems with cognitive function, vision, and impulsivity. A study released in February 2017 suggested children who suffered a brain injury could experience effects from that injury for up to seven years.
Coaches individually might want to protect players, but no federal rules require that coaches have concussion recognition training. Only 21 states require such education for coaches. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has issued guidelines regarding minimizing the risk of concussions in high school athletes, but the organization has no authority to force member organizations to follow its recommendations.
Some critics and safety advocates already believe the risk of serious, permanent brain damage is too great to warrant allowing youths to play high-risk sports.
Student Athletes File Lawsuits Following Concussions
Traumatic brain injury lawsuits have been filed against numerous organizations, alleging student athletes were not properly protected from concussions and other serious head injuries, leading to devastating consequences. In December 2015, two former high school athletes filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA).
According to reports, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jonathan Hites and Kaela Zingaro, both former student athletes, and the father of Domenic Teolis, who at the time of filing the lawsuit was a high school senior. All three say the PIAA was negligent in allowing student concussions to occur and failing to train coaches and other adults to recognize the symptoms of a brain injury and respond appropriately. One athlete, Teolis, reportedly suffered multiple concussions in one year and played in a game the day after he suffered a concussion during practice.
Claims in the Brain Injury Lawsuits
The claims made against PIAA involved violations of state law including:
- Not requiring baseline concussion testing for athletes
- Not tracking or reporting concussions, and
- Not removing athletes who suffered concussions from practices or games.
Although PIAA moved to dismiss the lawsuit, in October 2016, a judge dismissed most of the PIAA’s arguments.
A 19-year-old New Hampshire woman also filed a lawsuit against her former field hockey club, alleging her head injury was caused by Seacoast United Sport’s Club’s negligence.
Lawsuits have also been filed against the National Hockey League (NHL), National Football League (NFL) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) alleging the leagues did not adequately warn players about the risks associated with repeated head injuries. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court finalized a settlement between former NFL players and the football league. That settlement was worth a reported $1 billion.