Head Injuries in Young Athletes

Nearly 1.2 million young athletes play football in the United States each week. Fifty percent of them are likely to have a concussion some time in their high school playing career. Thirty-five percent will have more than one head injury. Which one will be mild, improving uneventfully, and which will result in severe disability is impossible to predict.

Cosmos vs. Diablas football game in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA _K8P0872photo © 2007 Mike Baird | more info (via: Wylio)

We have learned over the last few years that these injuries are more frequent and have an effect on the injured athlete for a much longer period of time than previously thought. Recent research tells us these young people are at much greater risk to develop problems later from seemingly mild head injuries.

More young people are participating in organized sports than ever. There are intrinsic differences in the young athlete that make them more vulnerable to injury because both the brain and body are still growing and have not reached their full mature potential. Approximately 60,000 sports-related head injuries occur to high school athletes each year. High school football has been compared to notoriously dangerous jobs such as coal mining.

Part of the challenge for responsible adults working with young athletes is the athlete’s lack of maturity and experience. It creates greater liability for injury and difficulty in even recognizing subtle yet important signs. Young athletes often hide their injury or pain because of the eagerness to return to play, avoid embarrassment, not let their team down or try to meet unrealistic expectations. This is particularly important with head injuries as there may be no visible sign of the injury. The athlete may deny their symptoms of headache, confusion, dizziness with a determined attitude to return to play.

Research over the last couple years has pointed to the importance of subtle signs which may be the only clue. Even seemingly mild blows to the head may lead to more serious injury. Certainly repeated small injuries increase the risk of serious complications.

The exact cause of concussions is not well understood but there are some recognizable patterns in symptoms and behavior. Common symptoms of post concussion syndrome include:

• Headache
• Dizziness
• Fatigue
• Memory loss
• Light sensitivity
• Difficulty concentrating

X-ray skullphoto © 2010 Erich Ferdinand | more info (via: Wylio)

Behavior can be minimally or profoundly affected by head trauma. Personality change, irritability or anxiety is not unusual. Other changes can be difficulty regulating emotions, poor coordination, or temporary learning disability. The precise cause of symptoms remains unclear and is a source of disagreement among researchers.

More emphasis on preventing these common but serious injuries is needed. This must include attention to good technique and understanding how to play the game well. Knowing the rules and use of proper protective equipment is also mission-critical.

We have learned that rest of both mind and body is important to allow the brain to heal. There is no exact formula for this. Each person must be cautiously evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Working together with your healthcare provider to formulate a plan for rest and transitional activity can ensure a rapid recovery and help prevent future injury.

– Bruce Kaler, M.D.


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