Experts Clash on Levels of Safety in Youth Sports

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Should children younger than 14 play contact sports like football? Two of the world's leading experts on concussion related injuries disagree on the subject.

Any time a person sustains a head injury, there is risk of concussion, and repeated concussions can have serious consequences. If an athlete receives a second concussion before the first has fully healed, it can cause permanent injury or even death.

According to experts, children who play football throughout high school may receive as many as 2,500 sub-concussive hits throughout their careers. A recent study found that the number of catastrophic brain injuries which caused permanent disabilities among high school football players rose to 13 during 2011. This alarming trend has researchers working on ways to make youth sports safer even if they don't agree on the best approach to safety.

The issue at hand is whether the safety skills obtained by experiencing contact early on in life is counterbalanced by risks of injury caused by multiple concussions.

Boston University's Dr. Robert Cantu thinks that sports like ice hockey, lacrosse and tackle football should be off limits to kids under the age of 14 until rules are changed to limit risks of concussions and other injuries stemming from multiple blows to the head.

On the other side is Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz from the University of North Carolina. He believes young athletes need to learn how to deal with physical contact early on when they play against opponents who are the same age and size and that early exposure to proper safety techniques will lead to safer playing later on.

Guskiewicz explains that "the youth league players generally are close to the same size and are about the same age. If you wait until the kids are freshmen in high school, you might have a 130-pound player competing with a 300-pound player. The forces can be tremendous. I believe it is safer for the players to learn at younger ages."

Cantu, who has treated a lot of youngsters with concussions, believes that it is critical to avoid repeated head injuries. "That's where Kevin and I differ," Cantu said. "I'm treating these children and I've seen them miss school for a week, a month, a semester, even a year because of post-concussion symptoms."

Source: Charlotte Observer, "Concussion experts differ on safety in youth sports," Tim Stevens, Feb. 12, 2012