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Head Traumas: Big Source of Young Athlete Deaths

A new study suggests blunt traumas may be an underappreciated and preventable source of sports-related deaths.

June 20, 2011 -- Tough tackles and blows on the football field may take its toll on young players.

A new study suggests blunt traumas may be an underappreciated and preventable source of sports-related sudden deaths.

Researchers say 14% of the 1,827 sudden deaths among young athletes reported over the last 30 years were caused by trauma-related injuries. That's about 16 deaths per year or about a quarter of the sports-related sudden deaths attributed to heart problems.

Football accounted for more than half of the sports-related sudden deaths among young athletes, and defensive players and running backs were most at risk.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.

"Trauma-related deaths in young competitive athletes are relatively uncommon events relative to the vast numbers of athletes participating safely in a wide variety of organized sports," write researcher Mathew Thomas, of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, and colleagues. "Nevertheless, these catastrophic events remain an important public health issue with a devastating effect on families, communities, and physicians."

Trauma's Role in Sudden Death

Researchers say sudden deaths among young athletes may grab the headlines, but little is known about the reasons behind them. Previous studies have focused on heart-related causes, and few have looked at trauma-related causes.

In the study, researchers analyzed data from a national registry of sudden deaths in young athletes from 1980 to 2009. Of the 1,827 deaths reported, 261 were caused by trauma-related injuries, usually involving the head or neck.

The largest number of trauma-related sudden deaths was reported among football players (148 deaths or 57%). Seventeen of these sudden deaths were among high school football players who sustained concussions shortly before a fatal head injury, a phenomenon known as "second impact syndrome."

Researchers say these are potentially preventable deaths.

"Our observations underscore the importance of developing more effective equipment design, return-to-play decision strategies, modified blocking/tackling rules, and greater attention to the education of coaches, trainers, parents and athletes regarding the consequences of repeated head blows and concussions," they write.

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