Both of my daughters are avid soccer players, so this moment was inevitable. It just came much sooner than I expected. Last winter, indoor league. A teammate on my 10-year-old’s team blasted a shot from the corner. It bounced off a defender’s leg, and flew into the air. My daughter sprinted toward it, cocked her neck, and headed it into the goal. Her teammates celebrated with her. Hugs all around. I sighed. I knew what I’d be doing the rest of the day—pouring through concussion research.
The first thing I learned: I’m glad I had daughters, and they don’t want to play football. Studies suggest that about 67,000 high school football players are diagnosed with concussions each year. Recent work says that number could be way low: Half of high school footballers surveyed in a 2012 study said they’d felt concussion symptoms in the past, but hadn’t reported them.
The youngest players have the oldest equipment and least experienced coaches, says Brent Masel, M.D., medical director of the Brain Injury Association of America. And their brains are particularly vulnerable to trauma because neurons aren’t fully sheathed in myelin—a protective covering of cells. In other words, their brain cells are like telephone wires without any protective coating.
Makes a dad wonder: Are my kids at risk? Are yours? Below are eight sports that put kids' brains on the front lines.
Gain the edge in every aspect of your life! How? Subscribe to Men's Health, the largest men's magazine brand in the world. As a reader of this blog, you'll save 40% off the regular subscription price. Makes a great gift too!
When Boston University researchers autopsied the brains of 85 athletes (including NFL, college, and high school football players) with histories of concussions, they found 80 percent showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to dementia and death. The damage starts earlier, though: A Virginia Tech and Wake Forest study of seven youth football players found that the average player sustains 107 head impacts in nine practices and four games. And the hits are hard—some similar in magnitude to those that college players face, the researchers say.
According to a recent CBC Sports tally, 88 NHL players missed 1,697 games because of concussions in the 2011-12 season—but being checked into the boards at a young age is just as dangerous. A March 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that ice hockey was to blame for nearly half of the almost 13,000 sports-related brain injuries that sent kids to the E.R.
SCULPT ROCK-HARD MUSCLE! The most popular—and most effective—workout in Men’s Health history is now on DVD! Incinerate body fat with The Spartacus Workout.
“As a sport, track is low risk for concussions—pole vaulters, though, are at high, high risk,” says Robert Cantu, M.D., and codirector of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Land anywhere but where you’re supposed to—which happens a lot—and you’re in prime position for a head injury, he says.
After studying the brains of 12 soccer players with an average age of 19 who never suffered a concussion but regularly headed the ball, Harvard Medical School researchers found potentially damaging changes in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and higher-level thinking in the soccer players.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports that more sports-related head injuries in 2009 occurred on bicycles than on football, baseball, and softball fields combined.
Third only to football and hockey, boy’s lacrosse is known for high concussion rates, according to study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. And while helmet-to-helmet collisions are always a danger, some experts believe the girls’ heads are at even more risk. Why? They don’t wear helmets. Girls also have weaker necks than boys—and research has suggested females take longer to bounce back from head injuries than their male counterparts.
If your kid’s a pitcher, you’re probably nervous. But the majority of disastrous injuries in baseball don’t come from being hit by a ball, says Dr. Cantu. They happen when sliding headfirst into a base. Hitting someone’s leg—or worse, a catcher’s shin guard—puts young players at high risk for concussions, he says.
Cheerleading is generally a low risk activity for concussions, but one girl is at astronomical risk: the flyer, says Dr. Cantu. Being thrown 20 feet in the air, only to leave your fate up to those below, sends your risk for catastrophic head and spine injuries through the roof, he says.
(Additional writing by Cassie Shortsleeve. Additional research by Laura Biel and Scott Rosenfield)