Concussion rates among high school athletes have doubled in less than a decade, according to a new study published Wednesday, a trend researchers believe is due to increased awareness of the dangers of concussions.
The study, which examined data from nine sports and 100 different high schools, documented 4,024 concussions and found that the concussion rate doubled from 0.23 to 0.51 per 1,000 athletes during that time period.
“It's scary to consider these numbers because at first glance it looks like sports are getting more dangerous and athletes are getting injured more often," Dr. Joseph Rosenthal, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Ohio State University, and lead author of the study, said in a release. “But I think in reality it's showing that concussions that were occurring before are now being diagnosed more consistently – which is important.”
He said that because the study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, was observational, it didn’t examine reasons why the concussion rates were going up.
In terms of which sports had the highest concussion rates, football came in first, and rates of head injuries “increased significantly” in football as well as boys basketball, boys wrestling, boys baseball and girls softball. The research team examined data between the 2005-06 school year to the 2011-12 school year.
The problem of concussions and traumatic brain injuries in professional sports leagues has received increasing scrutiny in recent years, with 10 former National Hockey League players filing a high-profile class-action lawsuit against the league in November 2013, alleging it didn’t do enough to protect them from concussions.
And in August 2013, the National Football League agreed to pay $765 million to thousands of former players who had sued them after developing dementia or other health problems related to concussions.
Previous studies have shown that high school athletes suffer from around 100,000 concussions each year — which is thought to be a lowball estimate.
Among children and adolescents from birth to the age of 19, hospital emergency departments treat more than 173,000 recreation- and sports-related traumatic brain injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Professional sports leagues have updated their concussion policies to minimize risk, and between 2009 and 2014, U.S. states moved to do so for school sports, too.
Rosenthal and his team found that the sharpest increase in concussion rates was in the 2008-09 academic year — around the time Washington in 2009 became the first state to pass a new law regulating school sports and head injuries.
The regulations mandated that athletes with suspected head injuries have to stop playing until they’re cleared by licensed health care providers. By 2014, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had passed such legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
That’s why Rosenthal thinks the doubled concussion rate in high school athletes is likely due to increased awareness of head injuries, rather than a drastic increase or over-diagnosis in concussions.
“Instead, we believe that the more likely rationale for the observed increase in concussion rates over time is a reflection of the increased awareness of concussion signs and symptoms by coaches, parents, and athletes themselves and an associated increase in reporting of signs and symptoms of concussion when they do occur,” the authors wrote.