Teen athlete concussion estimates jump in new data

Nera Andueza
Nera Andueza takes a concussion screening at the Science Museum of Minnesota in this 2012 file photo.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News 2012

Minnesota high school athletes suffered nearly 3,000 concussions last school year, state health officials said Thursday. That's dramatically higher than prior estimates for youth athlete concussions.

Football and hockey were the sports with the highest concussion rates. Overall, girls and younger athletes experienced higher rates of concussions.

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The data, from a new tracking system, provide the first solid numbers reported to the state since Minnesota passed a 2011 law that keeps players suspected of having a concussion out of the game without a doctor's clearance.

Football, the sport with the most participation, accounted for 42 percent of the concussions in the Twin Cities.

"We need to rachet this up in terms of our attention. That's what these data are telling us," Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said. "This is an issue in schools, in all sports that we studied."

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The department collected information from athletic directors at 36 Twin Cities public high schools, which reported 730 concussions in the last school year.

The voluntary tracking system found about three times more sports-related concussions among high-school age youths than previous Minnesota reports that relied on hospital records, officials added.

The total estimate of 2,974 sports-related concussions works out to roughly 22 concussions per high school.

The study found most concussions resolve on their own, with 5 percent of student athletes reporting symptoms lasting longer than two weeks. That result indicates less harm from concussions than other national studies, the department said.

High school sophomores suffered more concussions than other grades and researchers say they're not sure why.

It could be that 10th-graders are smaller or less skilled, or they might not have learned to hide their concussions so they don't get pulled from play.

Concussions are an injury too easily hidden or overlooked, said Lori Glover with the Institute for Athletic Medicine at Fairview Health Services, which collaborated on the report.

"What I would say to parents, coaches, kids, the important thing is be attentive to this. Don't take it lightly," she added. "Most resolve typically, so don't be afraid, but you need to get it managed appropriately."

Concussions can lead to poorer performance in school and place athletes at greater risk of harm if they are re-injured before the brain has healed from the first concussion, she added, urging teens not to hide headaches, light sensitivity or other potential symptoms.

Researchers were careful in their report not to attack sports.

"Certainly things can happen and we want to be careful and we want to train kids and teach the right techniques, but we still feel the risk of serious injury is relatively low," said Kevin Merkle, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League.

Merkle said he had a son that played football, adding, "I'd rather have him playing football than riding around in the car after school. To me they're a lot safer out there on the football field."

Participation in football has been dropping in Minnesota and nationally, although demographics also play into that, Merkle said.

The state high school league is in its fourth year of concussion training and it's working on an electronic reporting system to track injuries, he added.

The Minnesota Department of Health plans to expand its voluntary reporting program to athletic directors statewide to get a more accurate picture of concussion numbers among teen athletes.

From the Minnesota Department of Health: