Football Causing More Reported Child Brain Injuries

Playground activities and sports — particularly high school football — are sending an increasing number of children to the emergency room with concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today that hospitals have recorded a 62 percent increase over the last decade in children under the age of 19 suffering serious head injuries while playing sports and engaging in other physical activities.

Young men, more likely to play sports involving intense physical contact, accounted for seven in 10 cases. And football was most often the sport that sent them to the emergency room.

The rise may be the result of young people becoming more physically active in recent years. But the CDC’s injury experts suspect it’s evidence of how seriously adults now take head injuries.

“We believe that one reason for the increase in emergency department visits among children and adolescents may be a result of the growing awareness among parents and coaches, and the public as a whole, about the need for individuals with a suspected TBI [traumatic brain injury] to be seen by a health care professional,” said Linda Degutis, director of the agency’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The number of TBI cases rose from just over 153,000 in 2001 to nearly 249,000 in 2009. Boys accounted for almost three times as many injuries as girls and the biggest cause was football.

One fifth of all brain injuries suffered by boys under 19 occurred while playing football. High school boys, those aged 15-19, accounted for more than half of the football-related injuries. One third of all brain injuries among high school boys were the result of playing football, more than all the injuries from bicycling, basketball and soccer combined.

High school boys were nearly three times as likely as girls to suffer a brain injury while playing any sport.

For high school girls, soccer caused the most TBI cases – about a fifth of them. But football, with all its tackles and hits, caused five times as many brain injuries as girls soccer, which involves far less physical contact.

Up until the age of 10, boys and girls were most likely to bang their heads while bicycling or on the playground. But they suffered far fewer injuries than older children. Starting at age 10, when children are growing stronger and beginning to engage in more high-risk activities, the rate of injury starts going up and rises dramatically.

While football, one of the most popular sports in the United States, resulted in the highest number of brain injuries, a few less popular sports seem to pose a greater risk. Of all the more than 350,000 injuries in football, just over 7 percent were TBIs.

Horseback riding sent far fewer children to the emergency room. But those injured horseback riding were twice as likely to have a brain injury than the injured football players. Ice skating, golfing, all-terrain vehicle riding and snow sledding also resulted in higher rates of brain injury than football.

Of all the sports listed in the CDC’s report, bowling is the safest, with just 153 brain injuries reported over the last decade.

The CDC cautions this report may underestimate the true number of TBI cases. The agency’s doctors hope it encourages even greater awareness of the issue and more effective prevention in the next decade.