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Youth-Concussion Rate More Than Doubled From 2005 Through 2012

The rate of concussions reported among high school athletes jumped more than twofold from the 2005-06 through 2011-12 school years, according to a study published online last month in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.

The study drew upon data from High School Reporting Information Online, a national database that collects information from a representative sample of 100 high schools with at least one certified athletic trainer. It focused specifically on nine sports—baseball, boys and girls basketball, football, boys and girls soccer, softball, girls volleyball, and wrestling&mbdash;because the system had data for each of those sports over the full seven-year span.

To determine the rate of concussions for each sport, the authors examined the number of concussions reported per 1,000 athlete exposures (defined as each instance a student-athlete participates in a practice or competition). They divided the total number of concussions by the total number of athletic exposures to calculate each sport's concussion rate, along with the total concussion rate across all sports.

From 2005-06 through 2011-12, student-athletes at the 100 schools suffered 4,024 concussions over 11,268,426 athletic exposures. During the 2005-06 school year, student-athletes across all sports suffered 0.23 concussions per 1,000 athletic exposures. Seven years later, that rate had more than doubled to 0.51 per 1,000 athletic exposures.

The overall concussion rate wasn't the only thing to increase significantly over that time span. The concussion rates for five of the nine sports—football, boys basketball, boys wrestling, boys baseball, and girls softball—did so as well, as the chart below reveals. (The rates for the other four sports—girls basketball, girls soccer, girls volleyball, and boys soccer—did increase, but those increases were not considered significant.)

"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," said Joseph Rosenthal, the lead author of the study and a clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at The Ohio State University, in a statement. "This study is observational so it doesn't offer any proof about why the rates are going up. But I think in reality it's showing that concussions that were occurring before are now being diagnosed more consistently—which is important."

That last point bears repeating: It's not necessarily that student-athletes are suffering twice as many concussions now as they did in the mid-2000s. It's far more likely that, due to the increased level of awareness about concussions (in part due to a wave of state laws passed over the past half-decade), student-athletes are simply more attuned to what a concussion is and when to report a head injury to a coach or an athletic trainer.

That theory is bolstered by the discovery that the concussion rates appeared to increase more quickly starting in the 2008-09 school year, right when the first youth-concussion laws were beginning to pass through state legislatures. The study authors also credited medical professionals and national initiatives, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Heads Up" program, as helping to raise awareness of concussions among youth-athletes.

"Our theory is that more people are looking for concussions, and athletes, parents, and coaches are being educated on the symptoms and importance of removal from participation, as well as treatment," Rosenthal said in a statement. "There is a greater emphasis on monitoring for injury."

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