WASHINGTON — No one knows how often the youngest athletes suffer concussions. It's not clear if better headgear is the answer, and it's not just a risk in football.
A new report reveals big gaps in what is known about the risk of concussion in youth sports, especially for athletes who suit up before high school.
The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council on Wednesday called for a national system to track sports-related concussions and start answering those questions. Despite a decade of increasing awareness of the seriousness of concussions, the panel found young athletes still face a "culture of resistance" to reporting the injury and staying on the sidelines until it's healed.
"Concussion is an injury that needs to be taken seriously. If an athlete has a torn ACL on the field, you don't expect him to tape it up and play," said IOM committee chairman Dr. Robert Graham, who directs the Aligning Forces for Quality national program office at George Washington University.
"We're moving in the right direction."
But the panel found evidence, including testimony from a player accused by teammates of wimping out, that athletic programs' attention to concussions varies.
Why is the study important?
Reports of sports concussions are on the rise, amid headlines about former professional players who suffered long-term impairment after repeated blows. Recent guidelines make clear that anyone suspected of having a concussion should be taken out of play immediately and not allowed back until cleared by a trained professional.
Millions of U.S. children play school and community sports, but how many suffer concussions?
That information is not clear, in part because many go undiagnosed. But Wednesday's report said among people 19 and younger, 250,000 were treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports- or recreation-related brain injuries in 2009, up from 150,000 in 2001.
Which sports have the highest concussion rates?
For male athletes in high school and college, concussion rates are highest for football, ice hockey, lacrosse and wrestling. For female athletes, soccer, lacrosse and basketball head the list. Women's ice hockey has one of the highest reported concussion rates in college.
Should I let my child play the sports they're asking me to play?
College and high school sports injuries are tracked, but there's no similar data to know how often younger children get concussions, whether on school teams or in community leagues, the IOM panel said.
"If we don't have that type of data on the national level, it's very difficult" to know, said sports injury specialist Dawn Comstock of the University of Colorado, who reviewed the report.
Could safety gear prevent kids' concussions?
Some equipment ads make that claim. But there's little scientific evidence that current sports helmet designs or other gear, such as face masks or headbands for soccer, really reduce the risk, the panel cautioned. Still, it stressed that youngsters should wear helmets and other sport-appropriate safety gear, because they guard against other injuries, including skull fractures and face injuries.