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New research aims to educate parents and high school athletes about concussions

  • Updated
Porter-Gaud plays for lacrosse state championship

In a national study of 27 high school sports from 2011 to 2014, football had the highest rate of concussions, followed by boys lacrosse and girls soccer. (File/Staff)

One hundred percent of parents in a recent survey said they are affected in some way by concussions. Among all adults surveyed, 94 percent said head injuries and concussions in sports are a public health issue. Those statistics suggest sports has a real problem.

To educate the public about the real dangers of brain injuries and how to properly evaluate and treat them, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association devoted the most recent issue of the Journal of Athletic Training to sport-related concussions.

Some of its data might surprise parents. Football, not surprisingly, had the highest rates of concussions in a national study of 27 high school sports from 2011 to 2014. It might be more surprising to many that boys lacrosse was second, followed by girls soccer.

That study showed that in sports played by both boys and girls using the same equipment and rules, such as soccer and basketball, the rate of sport-related concussions was 56 percent higher for girls.

More concerning to healthcare professionals was an article that studied high school athletes who did not tell athletic trainers or doctors about suffering a concussion. We have heard pro athletes admit to hiding concussions, but we now have evidence that high school athletes do it as well.

Fifty-five percent of high school athletes said they didn’t or wouldn't report a concussion. The most common explanations given by those athletes were not wanting to lose playing time, not thinking the injury was serious enough to require medical condition, and not wanting to let the team down.

What’s shocking about that number was that every athlete at the 14 high schools surveyed received preseason concussion education mandated by the state. The education included the CDCs HEADS UP program documents, which were sent home to be read and signed by a parent or guardian.

One piece of good news came from that survey. Athletes at schools with athletic trainers correctly identified the signs and symptoms of concussions more often than athletes at schools without athletic trainers.

As I have argued many times, athletic trainers are key first-line responders for athletes who suffer sport-related concussions and other injuries. Unfortunately, 30 percent of U.S. high schools don’t have athletic training coverage, and only 37 percent employ a full-time athletic trainer. At the youth sports level, those numbers are probably much lower.

In an editorial published in the Journal of Athletic Training, Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA, and Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, explain that while much of the media reporting has been scary, there is much we need to learn so parents can make the best decisions for their children.

For example, we don’t really know just how often concussions lead to long-term neurological or psychological problems. We don’t know why some athletes appear to be more susceptible to brain injuries, so we can’t predict which ones will suffer later effects. We don’t know the real impact of repetitive blows to the head. And perhaps most importantly, we don’t know if advances in helmet or turf technology or changes to rules in different sports will reduce the risks to our kids.

Fortunately, they point out that more research than ever is seeking to answer these questions. The NIH-funded DIAGNOSE CTE Research Project is looking at ways to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients and determine risk factors for the condition. The General Electric-NFL Head Health Initiative supports several studies to improve the diagnosis and management of concussions. And the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense are conducting the largest study ever in concussion research, examining the natural history of acute concussion and recovery.

It’s crucial that we not lose focus that sports are good for our kids.

Does that mean we should ignore what we read and see on TV about concussions and CTE? No, and parents need to discuss the risks with their children and stress how important reporting any symptoms is.

Maybe the research will prove a definitive link between football and long-term brain damage. Maybe we will find that no helmet technology or changes to the rules will make the sport, or any contact or collision sport, completely safe. But until we reach that point, scientists must keep doing research and collecting data, and parents, coaches and young athletes must take steps to be as safe as possible while we wait for more answers.

Dr. Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of 'That's Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever,' available for pre-order now and in bookstores June 6.