By Alicia Wanek
Sports moms everywhere were scared by the recent news story showing that in a study of NFL players’ brains donated to scientific research, 99% showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease highlighted in the film Concussion with Will Smith. Football is the biggest target of the concussion discussion, but studies show that concussions occur regularly in basketball, soccer, baseball and other team sports as well. You may be surprised to know that cheerleading actually reports a greater number of concussions per participant than football.
Of course, that study was conducted on players who weren’t playing with the advanced helmets of today, before the idea of “heads up” tackling, and before the coaching staff and doctors knew that players couldn’t return to play until they had had significant time to heal. But still, it’s scary, especially if you have a young athlete wanting to participate in these impact sports.
Almost as concerning is the increase in sports injuries kids are sustaining that can cause lifelong physical effects. High school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries and 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year. And it’s not just the teenagers. More than 3.5 million kids under the age of 14 receive treatment for sports injuries each year, and children ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40% of the treatment for sports-related injuries in children. The risk and severity of the injury increases with age.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), children and teens have different kinds of injuries because they are still growing. “Growth is generally uneven: Bones grow first, which pulls at tight muscles and tendons. This uneven growth pattern makes younger athletes more susceptible to muscle, tendon and growth plate injuries.”
There has also been an increased focus on the prevalence of overuse injuries in young athletes in recent years. According to the AAOS, much of that could be that while in the past, children were likely to play different sports at different times of the year, now they are more likely to specialize in one sport. “When a child participates in just one sport throughout the year, he or she continually uses the same muscle groups and applies unchanging stress to specific areas of the body. This can lead to muscle imbalances that, when combined with overtraining and inadequate periods of rest, put children at serious risk for overuse injuries,“ the Academy reports.
Local hand surgeon, Derek Rapp, has seen sports injuries through his practice, as well as through his own participation as a rugby player for three years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Young athletes are still growing and are at greater risk for injury than adults. Additionally, many young athletes are tempted to overlook or minimize injuries because they are worried about being unable to participate,” says Dr. Rapp, a hand surgeon at Regional Plastic Surgery Center/RPSC Hand Surgery Center. “Delayed presentation can make treatment much more difficult and time consuming. It is important that athletes report injuries to their parents and coaches, so the proper medical evaluation can be performed and treatment delivered. Untreated injuries in your teens can lead to lifelong pain, arthritis or disability as they age.”
As parents, what can we do?
Make sure your child is physically ready to participate in the sport (and that they aren’t pushed too hard when their bodies aren’t ready).
Local physical therapist, Kyle Brookhart, works with athletes every day. “When it comes to fall sports, sometimes the problem is that the athletes haven’t been doing much all summer. They can then become more prone to injury because their bodies just aren’t ready for them to go full speed.” Conditioning and stretching are vital to preparing for the season.
If you suspect your child has sustained a concussion or an injury, get it checked out immediately.
Neurologist Dr. Ralph Lilly says, “Medical management of concussion requires early evaluation by neurologists, family doctors, physiatrists and neuropsychologists. The diagnostic studies should include imaging as well as assessment of cognitive and physical abilities. It’s important to inform and work with the patient’s school system or employer, family members and caregivers.
Some patients require accommodations to their school or work schedules. Speech, occupational, cognitive, vocational and avocational therapies can help to address individual needs. Those therapists and physicians should provide guidance regarding sleep, diet, exercise and especially—how to avoid further cranial trauma.
Concussion should be considered a serious brain injury. While it is not necessarily associated with a direct threat to someone’s life, it is commonly associated with significant alterations to the injured person’s daily life. With the proper attention and intervention, their outlook is invariably improved.”
The newest in radiological diagnostic protocols make identifying the severity of a concussion even easier today. Envision Imaging offers the CereScan, which can examine the blood flow in up to 160 regions of the brain, and their SWI, which can detect tissue differences in the brain, is a tremendous supplement to traditional MRI.
Physicians with training in sports medicine are specially trained to identify concussions and sports-related injuries. If they specifically work with children, even better. In the metroplex, the new Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at Children’s Medical Center even has Saturday clinics for evaluation without an appointment during fall sports season.
Editor’s Note: For more resources, visit the Children’s Health website.