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Concussion & Youth Sports: New Research Gives Clues for Keeping Athletes Safe

Melissa Womble, PhD, is a fellowship-trained neuropsychologist specializing in sport concussion management. She is director of the Inova Sports Medicine Comprehensive Concussion Program.

In the last several years, the science of concussions has come a long way. We’ve discovered a lot about how to recognize, diagnose and manage these serious injuries — but of course, there’s always more to learn.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics detailed concussion trends in 20 high-school sports. The study didn’t contain any major surprises, but it does add some important updates to our understanding of concussion in youth sports. Here are some key findings.

  • The riskiest sports. The three sports with the most reported concussions were boys’ football, girls’ soccer and boys’ ice hockey. The study found both good news and bad for football players: Between the 2013–2014 and 2017–2018 school years, the number of concussions during football practice went down. But the number during football games went up.
  • Sex differences. In sports played by both sexes, such as soccer, basketball and softball/baseball, girls were more likely than boys to be diagnosed with concussions.
  • Practices vs. competitions. Almost two-thirds of concussions happened during competitions. Cheerleading was the only sport that reported more concussions during practice than in competitions.
  • Recurrent concussions. Repeated concussions can cause both short-term and long-term problems. But there was good news from the study: The rate of recurrent concussions decreased between the 2013–2014 and 2017–2018 school years.

Advances in Concussion Treatment

One of the most promising findings from the new study is the drop in repeated concussions. We’ll need more research to figure out whether that’s a true trend — and if so, what’s causing it. But it’s a good sign that our efforts to manage concussions may be helping.

When a person returns to sports before a concussion is fully healed, they’re at greater risk of a repeat injury. In the past, we relied on patients’ self-reporting of their symptoms to decide if they were recovered and ready to get back to play. Today, we can measure concussion symptoms more objectively.

In addition to observing symptoms, we test a person’s cognitive functioning and assess how their vestibular (balance) and visual-motor systems are working. Thanks to those tests, we can be more confident that players have fully recovered before they get back in the game.

Concussion Tips: Takeaways for Parents and Coaches

What should parents and coaches make of this new study? They definitely shouldn’t be scared away from sports.

But you can use this new knowledge to help your youth athlete stay healthy. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Know the signs. Make sure you, your child and the coaching staff are able to recognize concussion symptoms. If you suspect a possible concussion, get it checked out.
  • Consider baseline testing. Concussion baseline testing is recommended for athletes of all ages. It establishes a person’s baseline abilities before a concussion. If an injury occurs, the medical team will be able to compare a patient’s symptoms to this pre-injury baseline.
  • Establish healthy routines. One reason concussions might happen more often during game days and tournaments is that they take athletes out of their usual routine, making them more vulnerable to injury. Remind your athlete to eat regular, healthy meals, stay hydrated and stick to a normal sleep routine — even if they’re traveling for a tournament. 
  • Seek out good concussion care. Unfortunately, a lot of concussion advice has not been updated to reflect the latest science. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your child’s treatment. If he or she doesn’t seem to be improving, get a second opinion. 

Download Inova Concussion Program’s “Guidelines for Progressive Return to Play”

If you need help identifying symptoms or scheduling a concussion appointment, call our 24/7 Concussion Hotline: 703-970-6427 or request an appointment with our Concussion Management Team.

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