A new report in the October 7, 2011 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that sports- and recreation-related nonfatal traumatic brain injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments have increased during the last decade. Here are some points to consider about this study and head injuries in sports.

Traumatic brain injury in sports

Julie Gilchrist, MD et al. reported the results of data collected by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System–All Injury Program (NEISS-AIP) from 2001 to 2009. The NEISS-AIP is operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. They studied visits to U.S. emergency departments that resulted from injuries in sports and recreation among patients aged 19 and under. The activities included organized sports and recreational, unorganized activities.

The authors estimated that over 170,000 sports- and recreation-related injury visits to U.S. emergency departments among patients 19 and under each year were traumatic brain injuries. TBI’s therefore made up approximately 6.5% of all injuries seen in emergency rooms resulting from sports and recreation. 71% of these injuries occurred in males, and the majority (70.5%) occurred among patients between 10 and 19 years old. The sports and activities that were associated with the highest numbers of traumatic brain injuries were bicycling, football, playground activities, basketball, and soccer.

Head injuries in sports are increasing

According to this data, nonfatal traumatic brain injuries being evaluated and treated in United States hospital emergency departments occurring in sports and recreational activities has increased 62% from 2001 to 2009. Now before alarmists start calling for rules against kids playing in sports, I think there are a few factors to keep in mind.

Points to consider about head injuries in sports

First, more kids play sports now than ever before. That 62% increase in brain injuries in youth sports might at least be somewhat the result of more kids playing and being exposed to the risk of injury. Second, there has been a very significant increase in the exposure of concussions in the media. Physicians, coaches, parents, and athletes are much more aware of the serious nature of these injuries. This increase might reflect physician awareness and increased diagnosis as well as parents and coaches being more likely to have seemingly mild head injuries evaluated and treated due to this awareness.

Head injuries in sports are more common than ever.

Having said that, this increase in traumatic brain injuries occurring in sports is certainly a trend worth watching. While injuries in sports are to a certain extent natural, if there are ways to decrease the numbers of brain injuries as well as decrease their severity, it is worth the effort. There are several simple measures that athletes, coaches, and parents should consider. Require appropriate protective equipment and ensure that they fit well and are in good condition. Teach proper technique in the various sports (such as proper heading technique in soccer) and follow and enforce rules to try to protect athletes. And teach parents and coaches, and athletes themselves, the signs and symptoms of concussions and emphasize frequently the need to have any brain injury properly evaluated and treated.