Team sports like football, hockey, and soccer can help children burn some energy and learn important interpersonal skills. Although the benefits are many, it is also important to consider the risks.
Certain sports are more injury-prone than others. We have gathered more information in recent years on the likelihood of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) for those who partake in youth sports. Although medical professionals had already warned of a risk in football and hockey, we now know that even soccer players are at risk for TBIs through collisions with other players and repeatedly heading the ball. We have decreased the risk with safety innovations in all sports with use of more advanced helmets and age requirements before teams allow heading in a game. But the risk remains.
How serious is the risk?
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reviewed the effect of repetitive head impacts on youth football players and found that even minor collisions can affect brain function. The researchers followed 99 players throughout an entire season and gathered data during the preseason, after completion of the spring training camp, twice during the season, and a final set of data at the end of the season. Researchers noted a spike in impairment of oculomotor function immediately after completion of the training camp and reported 9,498 head impacts during the season. The researchers also reported after the initial spike of impairment, the rate slowly progressed throughout the season.
Another recent JAMA study looked at hockey players. The researchers chose to analyze whether players known as enforcers, or those more likely to get into fights, were more likely to suffer from higher mortality rates connected to neurodegenerative disorders or likely related causes. Examples of likely related causes included suicide and drug overdoses. The researchers relied on the presumption of a connection between fighting and time spent in the penalty box with an increased risk of head trauma. Upon review of the data, they found these enforcers died 10 years earlier than other members of their team.
Although both studies show a connection between sport involvement and increased health risk neither call for an end to participation. Instead, the researchers call for more studies to help better develop a safe way to participate and reduce the risk of these negative health outcomes.
What can we learn from these studies?
Clearly, more research is needed but the initial findings support the need for safety measures while participating in youth sports. Schools and clubs are encouraged to implement these measures. Medical professionals are wise to check for potential TBIs when a patient presents with complaints of a potential head injury after participating in a youth sport.