Basketball and Concussions: How to Protect Your Teen

VIDEO: Brain injuries from basketball are on the rise in teens and adolescents.
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Basketball was going to be Niki Popyer's ticket to a good college -- until multiple concussions left her on the bench and unable to finish tests, homework, or even a full day of school.

The concussions started in seventh grade when she hit her head on the gym floor. By freshman year of high school, she was up to No. 5 -- which left her temporarily blind. At 17, Popyer, now a senior in high school in New Jersey, has had 11 concussions, seven of them basketball-related, and is left struggling to perform previously-ordinary tasks, like attending a full day of school.

"I can't concentrate in school, I have a headache 24/7 and I can't do the things I want to do because even a slight hit to the head makes me pass out. I can't play basketball, obviously, which is something I always loved to do," she says.

Popyer's experience is a cautionary tale, one that is echoed in research released Monday by Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio: the number of young people suffering from head injuries while playing basketball is on the rise.

Researchers looked at emergency room visits for children ages five to nineteen and found that traumatic brain injuries associated with playing basketball, predominantly in the form of concussion, had spiked 70 percent between 1997 and 2007. Despite a 20 percent decline in overall basketball emergency-room visits, head injuries still showed a significant increase, researchers found.

Collisions are most likely to be responsible for a head trauma, either ball to head, player to player, or as in Popyer's first concussion, head to floor, says study co-author Lara McKenzie PhD, principal investigator at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"We want to encourage kids to keep playing basketball because it's a fun sport and good [exercise], but there were more than 4 million ER visits [from 1997 to 2007], those numbers are still quite high and there's more we can do to make those number smaller," she says.

Are Teen Sports Today too Aggressive?

Teen head trauma in high school sports has received a good deal of media attention over the past few years, and a number of studies have highlighted this issue, says Dr. Marci Goolsby, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

Most recently, a study released last week found that ER visits for concussions occurring in youth team sports have risen sharply since the late 1990s. Sport-related concussions accounted for half of all concussions seen in teens, researchers found, and team sports, such as basketball, accounted for more than a third of those sports concussions.

This spike, like that seen in Monday's study, may have more to do with this increased awareness than with an actual increase in total head injuries, Goolsby says.

"Basketball has become more of an aggressive sport, but not necessarily more dangerous. In general the public is becoming more aware of traumatic brain injuries and there's an interest in getting them evaluated sooner," she says. More urgent evaluation, as opposed to checking out a head trauma with your family doctor, might account for the rise in concussion-related ER visits for youths.

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