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Should Kids Stop Playing Contact Sports?

As parents, you want only the best things for your children including the right diet, proper health and a happy childhood. You also know that childhood is a special time in their lives when many of their most important habits will be formed.  That is why so many parents strongly encourage their kids to engage in an active lifestyle which may include sports like football, hockey or lacrosse.

Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that these full contact sports can pose a serious health risk to youngsters. These sports that often involve high-speed collisions to the head can expose participants to concussions which may have much more long-term health consequences than once thought.  The latest scientific research now indicates that concussions—or, even, less impactful head collisions—may produce brain damage that is irreparable.

Why Are Concussions So Bad?

In order to understand how a head injury can affect your child’s development, you need to understand the mechanics of such an injury.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a concussion as a traumatic brain injury in which an impact causes the brain to shift in the skull. When the brain makes contact with the bony structure of the skull, it damages or destroys brain cells or blood vessels.

There are some hallmark symptoms of a concussion which may include:

  • Neurological dysfunction including loss of awareness or confusion;
  • Inability to remember the events prior to the injury or the injury itself;
  • Inability to form memories after the injury.

You should note that loss of consciousness is not a defining characteristic of a concussion; so someone can remain conscious and still suffer a serious brain injury.

Although there are more than 3 million cases of concussion in the U.S. each year, making it the most common type of brain injury, a disproportionate number of these occur among children and teens.  The reason that young children are most prone to head injuries is due to the large size of their head relative to their body, causing balance problems.  This is further compounded by the fast rate of growth which can interfere with bodily coordination.

If you suspect that your child has sustained a concussion, do not let them return to the activity that injured them. If the injury occurred during a sporting event, have them checked out by a doctor first.  Do not let them return to the game as an initial concussion can make them more susceptible to a second concussion.

Multiple brain injuries can produce serious health problems that affect memory and concentration or cause headaches.  There is even the possibility of permanent brain damage, even if there were months or years between the head injuries.

Avoiding Contact Sports

As a parent, you may want to expose your child to “rough and tumble” experiences that may toughen them up, but you should also consider the potential long-term damage to your child if they experience one or more serious brain injuries. Prominent medical experts like Dr. Bennet Omalu (the inspiration for the movie “Concussion”) now urges parents to avoid contact sports like football, hockey or wrestling for their developing children.

He has even gone so far as to call participation in these sports a form of child abuse. Dr. Omalu contends that exposing children to potential brain injury unnecessarily is akin to giving the alcohol or cigarettes.  He points to two studies of children who suffer concussions and found that those kids were more likely to die before they reach the age of 42.  Furthermore, brain injured children had a higher susceptibility for depression, suicide or a violent death.  Brain injuries at a young age also lead to lower intelligence, a higher propensity for substance abuse, and a greater likelihood to engage in criminal behavior.

Why Are Concussions So Bad?

Dr. Omalu even recommends that children younger than 12 to 14 avoid soccer. Soccer, he says, is not a contact sport but the constant head contact with such a heavy ball is problematic.  Furthermore, due to the high speed of the game, the lack of protective head gear, and the prevalence of accidental collision, younger children may be at greater risk than you think. Instead, children should play sports like tennis, volleyball, basketball, or track and field.

Where to Draw the Line

More parents are recognizing the dangers of sports like football where concussions are almost intrinsic to the game.  There is recognition that not only are brain injuries at a young age extremely dangerous, but so are multiple concussions—at any age.  Repeated injuries to the brain can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.  A study of 100 deceased NFL players found CTE in almost of them. CTE may contribute to cognitive dysfunction, dementia, depression and suicidal behavior.

Avoiding Contact Sports

Many doctors and parents have also taken note of the fact that there have been more reports of concussions in recent years. It is unlikely that the actual number of concussions has gone up substantially; more likely, patients are just seeking out medical care more often as awareness about the dangers of concussions spreads.

Ultimately, the question of whether your child should play sports like football where there is a high risk of head injury is up to your parenting philosophy.  There have been no reports of CTE found in youth or high school football players, so there may be a lower risk of it in young people.  However, you should know that enough head collisions will eventually lead to a concussion. There is no protective gear that can prevent a concussion at the youth, school or professional level.

However, there are real, lasting benefits to playing team sports that may mean more to you or your child than the risk of head injury.  Kids who play team sports may greatly enjoy the experience, develop socially or carry their love of physical activity into their adult lives.  Whether you allow your child to play contact sports should not be based on some frightening headlines, but should be the result of careful consideration.

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