There are a growing number of concerned medical organizations highlighting the risks for kids who play contact sports. Even in professional sports leagues, a number of current and former athletes are speaking out against the risks of contact sports. It’s like that a number of personal injury cases will start to arise over time, especially as we learn more about the impact of these sports on things like brain and mental health.
For parents, there are benefits to having kids play sports, but what about the risks, especially when these are considered contact sports, which so many are?
Below are some of the key things every parent should know about contact sports.
According to research, repeated concussions can lead to impairment. Studies show around 130,000 children who are under the age of 18 experience head trauma related to sports every year. Most kids with a concussion diagnosis will recover, but research shows when they continue to get concussions throughout their childhood and adolescent years, it can lead to permanent changes in brain function.
During childhood, the brain is actively developing.
If a child sustains a brain injury during this time of development, it can take energy away from the learning and development processes. Instead, the brain’s energy is going toward trying to heal the injury.
Head trauma during sports can happen when there’s a blow from another player, an object, or the ground.
The blow leads the brain to hit the front and back of the skull, which tears nerve cells and can ultimately lead to bleeding in or around the brain.
Concussions are characterized as mild traumatic brain injuries that can but don’t have to lead to a brief loss of consciousness.
Even if there’s no loss of consciousness, there might be damage to the brain, so parents are warned that shouldn’t be the only sign they look for.
The Controversy of Contact Sports
A lot of people have some of their best memories from their youth playing sports like hockey, football, and lacrosse. That sense of nostalgia led to pushback when the American Academy of Pediatrics started to speak out against kids playing contact sports.
A few decades ago, doctors thought brain development was slow and staggered. Now, with more research and science-backed evidence, they increasingly realize that there are so many changes that are rapid and precise in a developing brain. That means any injury, including even a very mild concussion, can have a significant impact on neurodevelopment.
Some argue that since kids playing sports are smaller and don’t weigh much, they do much less damage to one another when they play contact sports, but that doesn’t seem to be the reality either. In a study done by researchers at Virginia Tech, the team found that pre-adolescent kids were taking hits with the same force as their teen and adult counterparts.
As kids get older, their risk of a concussion does go down, and this is largely because of the muscles in their necks.
With that concept in mind, some will cite an arbitrary cutoff as 14 when teens should be able to play contact sports. Rather than considering a specific age, it might be better to look for signs of puberty in a child before deciding whether or not to let them participate in contact sports. This is because puberty is linked strongly with having a stronger neck. The stronger someone’s neck, the less brain movement if they are hit during a contact sport.
Permanent Changes in the Brain
The brain develops problem-solving, critical thinking, and language skills during childhood. Every time there’s head trauma, the brain has to work to repair it. For example, if a child is hit during a contact sport and their nerve cells are torn, new communication pathways inside the brain have to be found and then learned.
Swelling could lead to less blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for important skills.
If there’s nerve cell damage, it forces the brain to change the routes for impulses and information and how they’re both sent and received. If a child’s brain is still developing and these things happen, it takes away from their overall ability to learn.
It’s dangerous if a child sustains head trauma at the same time as they’re developing key learning and thinking skills. If there’s an interruption in an important brain process, then the skills might not progress as they should.
If the injuries are happening over and over again, it’s especially damaging.
What Can You Do?
If your child does play contact sports, there are some things you can do to make it a safer experience.
Some of these strategies to make contact sports safer include:
- Make sure your child wears the appropriate gear at all times. Children need to have the right sports equipment before they step onto the court or field, including not only the helmet but any appropriate pads and a mouthguard.
- Teach your kids to play by the rules. If your child has a coach who doesn’t follow the rules, you need to have a conversation with them or find somewhere else for your child to play.
- The coach should check the field or court before kids play every time and make sure it’s free of any holes or debris. For night games, the field should be well-lit.
- Don’t let your kids overplay. Kids should take frequent breaks, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least a one-month break from a particular sport every year to prevent injury.
- Athletes of all ages should warm up and stretch before and after they play.
- Young athletes should practice frequently and follow conditioning programs that help build their strength. When someone has strong muscles, it reduces their likelihood of injury.
- Make sure that your child’s coach is grouping kids by size rather than age.
Finally, if your child does experience an injury, they shouldn’t rush back into playing. They should be entirely free of symptoms before they start playing again.