Study: Concussions Soar Among Youth Athletes

A new study in the journal Pediatrics shows a dramatic increase in the number of sports-related concussions for child athletes. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Dr. Lisa Bakhos, the lead author of the study.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

With the academic year getting under way, it's crunch time for school sports.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Friday Night Lights")

Unidentified Man: Hut.

BLOCK: And if those sounds concern you, they concern doctors, too. A new study in the journal Pediatrics finds a dramatic increase in the number of child athletes showing up in the emergency room with concussions. The study looks at E.R. visits over a 10-year span.

Dr. Lisa Bakhos is the lead author of the article. Welcome to the program.

Dr. LISA BAKHOS (Pediatric Emergency Physician, Jersey Shore University Medical Center): Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And Dr. Bakhos, we were listening to sound from the TV show "Friday Night Lights," which is all about high school football players. Your study looks at two groups: high schools kids, and also kids ages 8 to 13. What did you find, in terms of concussions, for those groups?

Dr. BAKHOS: What we found that was most striking was that over a 10-year period, the number of emergency room visits for children who suffer concussion in the younger age group almost doubled, and in the older age group almost went up by 200 percent, even though participation in sport has actually been decreasing over the last 10 years.

BLOCK: Now, the younger group - the 8- to 13-year-olds...

Dr. BAKHOS: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: ...with concussions - most of them, 75 percent of them who got their concussion through sports, it was individual sports. It was bicycling, skateboarding, things like that - not so much with team sports.

Dr. BAKHOS: Exactly.

BLOCK: But by the time you get to the older group, it's about half and half.

Dr. BAKHOS: Exactly. This wasn't too surprising to us, as most younger children are much more involved in things like bicycling, playground activities. But we felt that that was also an important point to make, because there may be some prevention strategies that we should be doing more of for those individual sports as well. You know, better fits of helmets, and different things like that.

BLOCK: Did you come to any conclusions about why these numbers of concussions are going up so steeply?

Dr. BAKHOS: We need to do some more research on that, absolutely. But we've kind of come up with our own thoughts and ideas of why that might happen.

Number one, we think that, you know, thanks to media coverage, more and more people over the last, you know, 10 to 15 years, have been able to recognize concussion as a serious entity and try to seek medical attention.

But also, we think that just in general, youth sports have become much more competitive. More and more, we want our younger kids to be more aggressive and more active during their sport, which leads to more injuries. And also, you know, children in general are getting bigger.

Overall, the number of children who are overweight are quite alarmingly on the rise in this country. So an 8-year-old may be the size of what a 10-year-old was 10 years ago. So you're looking at much greater injuries when you have a smaller child banging into a larger child.

BLOCK: What do you think the lessons are, Dr. Bakhos, for coaches - and for parents and children, too - on the notion of when you return to play, or the idea that you should, you know, tough it out, suck it up, and get back out on the field?

Dr. BAKHOS: I think the message is clear: You need to treat concussion like any other injury. When I work in the emergency room and I see a child with concussion, I explain it like this: If your child had a broken leg, you wouldn't say, go ahead and go back out and play tomorrow on your broken leg.

It's the same kind of thing. Your brain has been injured, and it needs time to rest. When in doubt, they should sit the player out, the child should sit out, and get - seek medical attention, and have the decision be made by someone who's an expert in that field.

More importantly, once the decision is made that a child does have concussion, parents and coaches, and children themselves, really have to listen to the recommendations and follow them - and not just blow them off and say, oh, I'm going to go to my state championship tomorrow anyway.

BLOCK: Dr. Bakhos, thanks for talking to us.

Dr. BAKHOS: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Lisa Bakhos is a pediatric emergency doctor at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, New Jersey. She was talking about the study she co-authored, which found a significant increase in reported cases of concussions in child athletes.

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