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Concussion risk is higher at practices than at games for high school and college football players, study finds

“The findings suggest that limiting contact in practices is an important strategy for controlling the risk of concussion to football players,” the study’s authors conclude.

Oregon Ducks linebacker Danny Mattingly intercepting a pass intended for Ohio State Buckeyes running back Jalin Marshall in the third quarter of the 2015 CFP National Championship Game.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Football practices — not just official games — are a major source of concussions for players competing at the youth, high school and college levels, according to a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

This finding raises yet more questions about the sport’s inherent dangers.

Researchers at the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention in Indianapolis analyzed data collected on almost 20,000 young people who played football at the youth (ages 5 to 14), high school and college levels in the United States during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Of those players, 1,198 experienced a reported concussion; 141 (11.8 percent) of those injuries were among youth athletes, 795 (66.4 percent) were among high school athletes and 262 (21.9 percent) were among college athletes.

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No concussions were reported among the very youngest players — 5- to 7-year-olds. The study’s authors said it wasn’t clear if this finding was due to children at this age having zero concussions or to the inability of young players (and the adults around them) to recognize and report symptoms of concussions.

College players had the highest rate of concussions — about 4 per 1,000 players.

The most significant finding, however, involved when the injuries occurred. A pooling of data from all three age groups revealed that a slight majority of the concussions  (54 percent) occurred during games. But that wasn’t the case among the older players. At both the high school and college levels of play, well over half of the concussions (58 percent) occurred during practices.

“The findings suggest that limiting contact in practices is an important strategy for controlling the risk of concussion to football players,” the study’s authors conclude.

Declining participation 

Football remains popular among young people in the United States. As background information in the study notes, approximately 3 million youths, 1.1 million high school students and 100,000 college students participate in organized football leagues each year in the United States.

Yet fewer children are playing football than in the past. Although not all the reasons for that declining participation are due to the fear of concussions, that particular danger has become a growing concern. Concussions pose serious health risks, including long-term damage to the brain that can interfere with learning, emotions and memory.  

And, as the experts point out, helmets can do little to protect the brain from a concussion.

In a survey taken last December, half of the Americans polled said they would not let their children play football. The wisdom of that attitude was only reinforced in January, when a study reported that it had found an association between playing tackle football before the age of 12 and an increased risk of developing cognitive problems later in life among former professional football players.

The current study is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. But you will find its abstract on the JAMA Pediatrics website.