Concussions: It’s OK For Kids To Play Contact Sports

Kid in football helmet

Parents often ask me: “Should I let my kid play football?” Or hockey, or lacrosse, or soccer, or any other contact sport. Their biggest concern with these sports has to do with concussions, and rightfully so.

The concussion topic has been well discussed over the last year. NFL lawsuits and Will Smith’s movie, ‘Concussion,’ have re-ignited the discussion over sports-related head injuries. In some ways this extra attention is great for young athletes and in other ways it’s holding them back.

Discussion on the risk of sports-related brain injury leads to heightened awareness and today, families and coaches better understand the signs and symptoms of concussions. They’re seeking care when necessary and following the proper return-to-play and return-to-learn protocol – all great outcomes.

But, in my opinion, a less positive outcome of this intense discussion around concussions is that some families have been scared into paralysis and are choosing to keep their kids out of sports altogether.

My advice to those parents is: please don’t be afraid to let kids play sports.

If concussions seem to be “on the rise” recently it’s because we are doing a better job than ever before at identifying and managing concussions when they happen. Concussions are no more prevalent now than they were 10, 20 or even 50 years ago. Furthermore, long-term illness associated with concussions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which was discovered in the brains of about 100 deceased NFL players, has yet to be diagnosed in kids playing youth or high school football.

So, when a parent asks me if they should let their child play football, I share thoughts similar to:

“The decision is entirely yours, but, whatever you decide, please don’t let a headline in a newspaper or a reporter on TV make the decision for you. Concussions in kids are a problem – don’t get me wrong. But the lifelong benefits of being active and playing sports at a young age far outweigh the risks of your child possibly becoming injured.”

Another positive outcome of the renewed conversation over sports-related concussions is that more resources are being devoted to finding evidence-based solutions to fix the problem through sports medicine research. As a result, we are getting better at preventing concussions from occurring.

Our research at Cincinnati Children’s has come a long way since 2014, when I wrote about NFL concussion rates. At that time we found concussion rates to be lower in areas of high altitude, where more blood surrounded the brain in the skull, thereby eliminating the “slosh” that leads to a concussion. Since then, we’ve identified a way to potentially mimic the physiological effects of increased altitude, which causes increases in the amount of blood volume in the brain, through the use of device worn around the neck like a neck tie. The device achieves the same effect no matter the altitude.

We are hopeful that the C-shaped collar minimizes brain injury by putting a small amount of pressure on the jugular vein, slowing blood flow out of the cranium and keeping more backflow inside the skull and around the brain. We theorize that this extra blood in the skull creates a hypothetical “airbag” that protects the brain from sloshing around inside. A prototype collar has already been tested in studies with high school boy’s hockey and football players. Our next step is to do a large scale study on female athletes.

We acknowledge that more research needs to be completed to make sure that increasing the amount of blood around the brain is a safe and effective way to prevent brain injury resulting from head impacts. If we can prove that it is, the collar could have greater implications beyond just sports. It is designed to be worn with or without a helmet and it is re-sizable to fit both children and adults. The device could potentially be worn whenever physical activity puts a person at increased risk for a head injury, like when riding a bike for instance.

From my perspective, our efforts should always be focused on making all sports activities – from football to fútbol – safer for kids. We should not hold kids out of sports for fear of injury. The risk of physical injury is, and always has been, a part of getting kids physically active. Bruises, scrapes, broken bones, sprains and, yes, even concussions, will always be a possibility whether we like it or not. But that’s why pediatric sports medicine and research exists – to help kids play safe and also recover from injury so they can get back to healthy physical activity in their formidable growing years.

Ultimately I can’t tell you how to choose which sports your child should play and not play. Take into consideration your child’s interests, the risks involved, and the options available to your family, then make an informed decision.

What I can tell you is that inactivity should never be an option. Sitting on the couch is not a safer alternative to playing sports and being active – in fact, it’s more deadly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide.

So if we take away sports, which is the only thing in my mind that spontaneously motivates kids and gets them moving, we may actually be increasing the risk of harm, not decreasing it.

At Cincinnati Children’s, we are available help your young athlete and to answer your questions. To make an appointment or speak with a staff member, please contact our Division of Sports Medicine.

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Greg Myer, PhD

About the Author: Greg Myer, PhD

Greg Myer, PhD, is director of Sports Medicine Research and the Human Performance Laboratory at Cincinnati Children's. He has co-authored more than 240 peer reviewed medical journals and published books and several book chapters related to his research on the biomechanics of knee injury, sports performance and knee injury prevention training.

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