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When sports hurt

Mar 29, 2013

While there are a multitude of physical and mental benefits for young athletes, perhaps the biggest single pitfall is sports-related injuries.

According to a 2012 study by Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit network of organizations working to prevent childhood injury, one in three youth athletes involved in team sports are injured seriously enough to miss practice or games. Pulled muscles, overuse injuries, broken bones, dehydration and concussions are among the leading culprits. And no sport results in more visits to the doctor than football.

Researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, studied youth football-related injuries across nearly two decades. They estimated that 5.25 million injuries were treated in U.S. emergency rooms between 1990 and 2007. During the 18-year study period, the annual number of football-related injuries increased from 274,094 in 1990 to 346,772 in 2007 (a 27 percent increase).

Surprisingly, football injuries are increasing at a time when participation is decreasing. According to the latest team participation survey from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, from 2008 to 2011 the number of people playing tackle football dropped 17.5 percent, from 7.8 million participants to 6.4 million.

The Center for Injury and Research and Policy reported that the most common football injuries were sprains and strains (31 percent), fractures and dislocations (28 percent) and soft tissue injuries (24 percent). Concussions accounted for 8,631 injuries each year.

There is likely no sports-related injury currently more scrutinized than concussions, especially those that happen on the football field. The issue of multiple concussions and the long-term impact they can have is at the forefront of a lawsuit by more than 4,000 former players against the National Football League.

And even though the NFL, National Hockey League and Hockey Canada have all implemented programs to raise awareness about concussions and ways to prevent them on the playing field or ice, 52 percent of coaches who responded to the Safe Kids Worldwide study “believe there is an acceptable amount of head contact young athletes can receive without potentially causing a serious brain injury.”

Currently in the U.S., 40 states and Washington, D.C., have passed youth concussion laws. Most laws stipulate that athletes, parents and coaches must be educated about the dangers of concussions each year, that an athlete suspected of having a concussion must be removed from a game or practice and that a licensed health care professional must clear the athlete to return to the playing field. In August of 2012, USA Football and the NFL launched “Heads Up Football,” an initiative that emphasizes better and safer tackling techniques, concussion awareness and proper fitting equipment.

Football players aren’t alone in the emergency rooms. In a separate study, the Center for Injury Research and Policy found there are more than 20,000 ice hockey-related injuries seen in U.S. emergency departments each year.

Marc Desrochers of Watertown, Connecticut, has experienced firsthand the heart-stopping feeling of having a child injured during competition. Desrochers’ 13-year-old son, James, plays hockey and lacrosse and was recently injured in an on-ice incident.

“During our Thanksgiving tournament recently, he took a hit, and for the first time he stayed down and the coach had to come out onto the ice to attend to him,” Marc Desrochers says. “No signs of concussion but because of the awareness, he is pretty responsible and told his coach he thought he should sit the rest of the third period. Like football, hockey and boys’ lacrosse are contact sports, and it certainly is a worry.

“There is a lot of focus on concussions and injuries especially now that the James is older,” he continues. “A number of kids in our league have missed games already this year because of concussions. The coaches do talk to the kids about safety, hitting safely and symptoms.”

The Center for Injury and Research and Policy in Columbus has implemented a program called High School RIO (Reporting Information Online), which it hopes will help curb the number of sports-related injuries each year. The system tracks and studies injury rates and patterns among high school athletes with the hope that long-term accurate data collection will result in improved equipment, necessary rules changes and lasting education programs for parents, coaches and athletes. —Michael L. Jackson