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Concussions on the Rise for Young Athletes

There was about a 60% increase in the estimated number of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries (TBI) seen among young athletes during the past decade, according to the CDC.

Oct. 6, 2011 -- There was about a 60% increase in the estimated number of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries (TBI) seen among young athletes during the past decade, according to the CDC.

In 2001, there were an estimated 153,375 traumatic brain injuries among people from birth to age 19. This number rose to 248,418 in 2009.

Many of these injuries occurred among bicyclers, football players, and children in playgrounds. Basketball and soccer players are also at risk for TBI, according to a new report in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Exactly why we are seeing this uptick is not known, but "I believe this is, at least, in part due to increased awareness," says study researcher Julie Gilchrist, MD. She is a pediatrician with the CDC's Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention in the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta.

"We are hoping that awareness has gotten up to the point that parents, teachers, and coaches recognize the signs and symptoms of concussion and make sure that children are evaluated," she says.

These may include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness (even a brief one)
  • Memory problems
  • Headache
  • Pressure in the head
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Inattentiveness

These don't necessarily occur right after a game or fall either, she says. "It takes time for symptoms to develop. So if they are showing signs on Monday it may be because of something that happened at Friday's football game."

In the new report, some differences in injury rates were seen based on a child's age and gender. About 71% of emergency room visits for sport- or recreation-related TBIs occurred in boys; 70.5% of all these visits were for children and young adults aged 10-19. Children from birth to age 9 were more likely to sustain head injuries while bicycle riding or during playground activities.

Preventing TBI in Young Athletes

To help prevent concussion, bicyclers and football players should always wear a correctly fitted bike helmet. Conditioning exercises can build the strength and skills that can cut back on injury. "Obeying the rules of games and strict officiating can also reduce injuries in team sports," Gilchrist says.

Jeff Mjaanes, MD, director of the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says that awareness of TBI in young athletes is definitely heightened. But, he says, these injuries may also be becoming more common.

"High school kids are bigger and stronger than in the past," Mjaanes tells WebMD. "They hit harder, the sports are more aggressive and they use their heads and helmets as a weapon."

Treating Concussions

Mark S. Dias, MD, is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. He says that knowing the signs of concussion and getting prompt medical attention are crucial.

The way to treat a concussion is to rest the brain, he says.

"In those first several days, one should have mental rest as well as physical rest," Dias says. "This means avoiding things like homework, not watching TV, or playing on a computer or playing video games in the first few days after a concussion."

This is often called cocooning, he says. "Rest in a quiet, semi-dark room, with no bright lights and loud sounds."

The CDC and the National Football League have partnered to offer the "Heads Up to Clinicians: Addressing Concussion in Sports among Kids and Teens." This free online course is aimed at helping health care professionals recognize the symptoms of TBI in young athletes.

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