Tough Call — Should I Allow My Child to Participate in Contact Sports?

footballI am a rabid college football fan. I went to the University of Miami for both undergraduate and medical school. I have been to three of their National Championship games (please don’t mention Ohio State) and whether you like the Hurricane’s or not, I will always be wearing a bright orange cap with a prominent “U” in front come Saturday morning. However, as I watch these football games every week and see young men get tossed and battered on the football field, I can’t help but wonder just how much permanent brain damage these young athletes may be sustaining.

Brett Favre is just the latest in a growing list of ex-NFL players who have experienced memory loss and other debilitating conditions due to head injuries sustained on the football field. If you think about it, it’s not really a surprise — the hits that these players sustain is bound to do some damage. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are approximately 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related concussions that happen each year in the United States… and those are only the injuries that have been reported. The true incidence is likely to be much higher.

The real danger is in the second hit after a concussion has been sustained. According to the Mayo Clinic, repetitive head trauma can lead to a “permanent decrease in brain function”, memory loss, emotional disturbances and early Alzheimer’s disease. And studies show that brain damage may also occur in players that have never had a concussion. Researchers say that sub-concussive hits — repeated several times throughout a game, season and career may have a cumulative effect on the brain.

Like I said, I love football, but I can understand why the grim news stories, statistics and studies may have you wondering whether or not you should allow your child to participate in youth football… or any other contact sport. In short, there is no easy answer.

Steve Fainaru, co-author of the book A League of Denial, says and I concur, “I think it’s a very personal decision, and it’s one that I’ve grappled with myself, with my own son. As I said, the issue of prevalence with this disease is not yet established. There are some very, very ominous signs, obviously. But at the same time, we all know that there are lots of things in life that involve risk, and I personally don’t want my son to be making all of his decisions based on fear…”

Aside from the unparalleled life lessons learned on the field, football and other team sports are exciting to watch, thrilling to participate in and offer exceptional physical activity that is much needed in a time when childhood obesity is on the rise. That being said, there are some dangers involved and children — whose brains are still developing — are particularly susceptible. Parents will have to weigh the pros and cons for each individual child to determine the best course of action, but I believe that taking some extra precautions and being aware of the signs, symptoms and treatment of a concussion can help to minimize the risk involved. The following tips can help to reduce the risk of serious injury on the field:

  • Make sure coaches and personnel are trained to spot signs of concussion. The Centers for Disease Control and the University of Michigan both offer free training and safety courses for coaches.
  • Parents should also familiarize themselves with signs and treatment. The American Academy of Neurology offers a reference sheet to help parents recognize the signs of concussion.
  • Discuss the importance of safety with your child. Too often players downplay their symptoms so that they can get back on the field.
  • When in doubt, sit it out. Players should be benched for even the slightest of symptoms.
  • Don’t rush back to the game — wait until symptoms are completely gone. This can take up to two weeks, and sometimes longer.
  • Check the age and condition of helmets. Helmets should be reconditioned every year. The last restoration date is printed on a small sticker on the back inside of each helmet.
  • If your child has experienced more than one concussion — consider working with a neurologist to ensure that there is no long term damage

In the meantime, be aware of these facts. This is not just about football, it’s about safety in all sports. Discuss this with your child. Make them aware that winning at ALL cost is not the correct attitude. Although you can learn many lessons from sports, none of them is worth their life.

More importantly, reassure them, that even though the Miami Hurricanes blew a 7-0 start to this season, they WILL be back next year to regain the glory of old!

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