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Higher Altitude, Fewer Concussions? Study Suggests Link for Student-Athletes

High school student-athletes who compete at higher altitudes may be at lower risk for sustaining a concussion, suggests a study published online recently in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

At higher altitudes, certain physiological changes occur within a human's skull, according to the study, including the swelling of blood vessels in the brain. Without getting too scientific here, these changes cause the brain to fit more tightly in the skull, preventing it from moving around as much during a head impact.

The researchers analyzed data from 497 U.S. high schools at varying altitudes (from seven to 6,903 feet) taken from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System. All of these schools had at least one nationally certified athletic trainer on staff. 

From those 497 schools, athletic trainers reported a total of 5,936 concussions that occurred during 20,618,915 athletic exposures (defined as each time an athlete participated in either a single practice or a competition). When comparing schools with altitudes above and below 600 feet, the study authors discovered a lower rate of concussion among the schools at higher altitudes.

Among all high school sports played at altitudes of 600 feet or above, they discovered a 31 percent decrease in concussion rates. Concussion rates among high school football players were reduced 30 percent for overall athletic exposures, 27 percent during competition, and 28 percent in practices.

"We did see significant differences in concussion rates with elevation changes," said Dawn Comstock, associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and co-author of the study, in a statement. "This could mean that kids in Colorado are less likely to sustain a concussion playing sports than kids in Florida."

Below, you can see the numbers of concussions, athletic exposures, and the rates of concussion per 10,000 athletic exposures, for schools above and below 600 feet. 

Comstock and her colleagues hypothesized that the physiological changes described above could play a role in explaining the reduced rates of concussions for athletes at higher altitudes. Given that many sports-related concussions occur when the brain smacks into the skull's walls during a head impact, the swollen-blood-vessel theory makes logical sense.   

Despite drawing upon a national data sample, the study authors call for further research to confirm their findings. They'd like to expand this work beyond high schools, too.

"If this study is correct, we should look to replicate our findings in the National Football League," Comstock said. "For example, if the Broncos play the Chargers in San Diego or the Dolphins in Miami they should experience more concussions than when they play here in Denver."

Two brief programming notes:

  1. If you haven't yet downloaded our e-book on youth-sports concussions, it's still free on Amazon until midnight tonight. More details on that here.

  2. Starting tomorrow, I'll be transitioning from my full-time position at Education Week to a part-time role as a contributing writer. I've accepted a full-time job as an editor with Bleacher Report, a sports website owned by Turner Sports, which I begin tomorrow.

    What does that mean for you, loyal Schooled in Sports readers? Basically, nothing. You may see some more guest posts pop up, particularly on breaking news items. But, otherwise, I'll still be blogging here at least three times a week.

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