The problem of sports-related traumatic brain injury, including concussions, in kids has been keeping pediatric experts, sports doctors, neurologists, and parents on the edge for years. A consensus panel of experts just issued new guidelines regarding contact sports in children. The conundrum is that science still cannot offer clear answers to the concerned parties.
When is It OK to Let Your Child Get Into Contact Sports?
The jury is still out on this one, unfortunately.
A recent consensus statement published in JAMA Pediatrics highlights the conclusions of pediatricians, sports doctors, neurologists, and other specialists in related fields who gathered data worthy of three decades of sports concussions-related research. The experts tried to answer some of the most pressing questions coming from parents, doctors, and the community itself regarding links between contact sports, children, and long-term concussions’ consequences.
The science has evolved enough to fill in some blanks on how a child’s brain develops and reacts in the face of trauma (sports concussions), but it still has plenty of answers to offer to the concerned parents.
Strong Data vs. Inconclusive Data Regarding Youth, Contact Sports, and Concussions
According to the consensus panel, now we have enough scientific evidence that proves that:
- Sports-related concussions (SRCs) have higher incidence in contact sports than in non-contact sports. We all knew that, intuitively, just like we already knew gravity might have something to do with falling down, but now we have the science to back this up;
- Adolescent girls present higher levels of SRCs in comparison to adolescent boys when both groups play the same sports by the same rules in the same conditions (soccer, basketball, etc.), which can say a lot about either adolescent females or sports in general, the jury is out on this one as well.
We do not have, however, enough data to lead to a conclusive answer regarding the following pressing matters for parents:
- If age per se influences or modifies the risk of concussion in kids;
- If preexisting mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc.) have any influence on the risk of SRCs occurring in youth.
So, Is Your Kid Too Young for Contact Sports?
We don’t know. What we do know, nevertheless, is that
The age and level of play at which full contact is optimally introduced is sport-specific and requires more research.
The effect of full-contact experience on risk of concussion in collision sport may be sport-specific and remains unclear.
We also know that the panel offered a list of recommendations useful in the prevention of contact sports concussions. While they are many and address parents and schools, we feel the need to emphasize on at least one of them, which we find vital for the well-being of a child:
Youth should be taught sport-specific contact techniques before contact or collision is introduced.
Research is needed to evaluate developmental readiness to learn and perform sport-specific contact and collision techniques.
Just as the researchers say, such guidelines and recommendations do not say that children should be inactive and avoid sports. However, parents should be aware that science has still inconsistent data and results to offer clear answers on the correlations or causalities linking age, sex, preexisting conditions, etc. and contact sports concussions.
Other Conclusions and Guidelines to Keep in Mind if You Are a Parent
The consensus panel offers parents some peace of mind, nonetheless. Some important conclusions drawn from the analyzed data shows that:
The association between repetitive head impact exposure and changes on neuroimaging in youth is inconsistent and the clinical implications of these changes are unknown.
High-quality data show no association between repetitive head impact exposure in youth and long-term neurocognitive outcomes.
Experiencing multiple concussions in youth is one risk factor among many that may be associated with more long-lasting symptoms and longer recovery.
The evidence is inconclusive as to whether multiple concussions in youth are associated with long-term neurological changes.
There is little evidence that age at first exposure to repetitive head impacts in sports is independently associated with neurodegenerative changes.
Discussing the importance of protective gear, while research is still necessary, you should keep in mind that helmets are a necessity, especially in sports presenting high risks of head contact (American football, ice hockey, lacrosse, downhill skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and bicycling, among others).
Another thing that parents should know is that youth should not get any restrictions when it comes to physical activity or their choice of sport unless otherwise specified by medical contraindications.
To top that, the panel concluded that parents should not insist on retiring or withdrawing a child or a teen from a contact sport solely based on the number of concussions the child registered. There is no evidence so far that the number of concussions predicts neurological or developmental issues later in life.
So What Did We Learn about Allowing Kids to Get into Contact Sports?
According to the report’s conclusions and discussions, science needs to find more accurate methods of investigating the relationship between age, sex, types of contact sports, number and severity of concussions and the potential cognitive or neurological issues that could stem later in life.
Moreover, doctors, youth athletes and their families, athletic personnel and organizations, and authorities should develop and follow thorough guidelines to preserve the health of youth without limiting their physical activities or choice of sports.
Last but not least, parents should always keep an eye on their children without dismissing the potential risks of kids’ concussions but without panicking too much about them.
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