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New study reveals troubling stats on concussions in high school sports

Football concussions have been all over the news lately, with Frontline’s documentary about worries about long-lasting brain injuries to National Football League players and former Packers quarterback Brett Favre admitting he’s concerned he has memory loss from multiple concussions.

A recent Cap Times cover story by Todd Milewski looked at the problem on the high school level. And on Wednesday, a panel of experts commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the NFL issued an alarming 306-page report on concussions in high school football. The takeaway: not only is high school football the most dangerous of any level of football when it comes to concussions, but a high school player is nearly twice as likely as a college player to suffer a brain injury.

For every 1,000 “exposures” — a practice or a game — a college player will suffer a concussion in 6.3 instances. A high school player will suffer a concussion in 11.2 instances, according the report.

Researchers were at a loss to explain the difference, speculating that perhaps college-level concussions are underreported compared to those of high school athletes, who live with their parents. 

High school athletes also don’t have access to neurologists and other medical experts to manage their injuries — and in some cases, they play without the proper equipment. The study also concluded that there was no evidence that the latest helmet technology prevents brain injuries.

Check out our data visualization of what’s known about concussion statistics.

Across all sports, emergency room visits for head injuries for athletes under 19 have skyrocketed from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009.

While the findings are troubling, the committee chair made a statement that echoed the main point of Milewski’s article — that there isn’t enough data on high school concussions, and local officials need to do a much better job tracking and reporting it.

“There are numerous areas in which we need more and better data,” chair Robert Graham said. “ Until we have that information, we urge parents, schools, athletic departments and the public to examine carefully what we do know, as with any decision regarding risk, so they can make more informed decisions about young athletes playing sports.”

Milewski’s story noted the irony of sports, where every running yard or tackle is meticulously catalogued, being surprisingly lax when it came to tracking something as serious as head injuries.

“At a time when the sports world is increasingly obsessed with numbers — from fantasy sports to “Moneyball” to ESPN’s hiring of Nate Silver — data collection locally on concussions is haphazard and inconsistent,” Milewski wrote. “Those looking to find patterns or draw conclusions about how to address the top-reported injury in high school athletics have a difficult, if not impossible, task.”

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