Many parents worry about the risks of head injuries with their child athletes, and they might have good reason to do so. A new study conducted by researchers from Virginia Tech assessed where on the spectrum youth football falls when it comes to concussion risk.
The researchers found that young players don’t get concussed as frequently as those playing at the high school or college level, but the concussion risk is still strong, especially considering that young players can get concussed after enduring less forceful hits.
“These are the first biomechanical data characterizing concussion risk in kids,” said researcher Steve Rowson. “Children aren’t just scaled-down adults: Differences in anatomy and physiology, like head-neck proportions and brain development, contribute to differences in tolerance to head impact. These results can lead to data-driven interventions to reduce risk in youth sports.”
Where the risk lies
To determine the concussion risk young football players face, the researchers followed six youth football teams among three states: North Carolina, Virginia, and Rhode Island.
For four years, over 100 kids wore special helmets that were equipped with sensors that were able to track the child’s head and neck movement. This was useful because if and when the child was hit in the head, the researchers were able to measure the impact of the hit and cross-reference that information with any formal medical records.
The researchers learned that there is certainly a risk present for young kids playing football; however, that risk isn’t as great as it is for older, bigger people playing the sport.
The study revealed that youth players may not be getting as many concussions as their older counterparts, but they are more inclined to get injured after enduring a less forceful hit. The researchers explained that a hit of just 62 g could be enough to give a youth football player a concussion, whereas older players would require a hit of around 102 g.
“These numbers prove for the first time that youth players are at a higher risk of injury at lower head accelerations, but it is important to note that overall head acceleration exposure in youth football is much lower than in adult football,” said researcher Stefan Duma.
Protective gear is essential for youth football players to stay safe during practices and games. Thanks to work done by the researchers, they have developed regulations for youth helmets to ensure that equipment is as protective as possible.
“No one had ever come up with a rating system tailored to youth helmets, partly because the data didn’t exist,” said Duma. “Now we can evaluate helmets based on the actual risks youth players experience, and companies can use that information to design models specifically for this large group of players.”