Young athletes under 18 are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to brain injuries, and a new report published in the Journal of Child Neurology highlights the importance of accurately diagnosing concussions quickly to protect their brains.
“The continued play by a child who has sustained a concussion puts them at significant increased risk,” said Jacob Resch, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and co-author of the study. “To keep a concussed child from continuing to play requires immediate and accurate diagnosis.”
Currently, every state but one requires youth athletes to be removed from play if they are suspected of having a concussion and not to return until they are cleared by a healthcare provider, but Resch says many schools and sports organizations do not call for elements essential for diagnosing a concussion during a game.
Many young athletes take to the field without critical resources in play to identify when a concussion may have occurred. Specifically, there is often no athletic trainers or trained clinicians at these sports events.
“Diagnosing sport concussion requires specific training,” Resch said. “Think of it as a medical specialty that not necessarily all general practitioners or pediatricians are well versed in. There is a range of assessments used in diagnosing concussions and each of them requires specific training.
“The best person to have on a sideline is someone who has specific training in this area, most often seen in a certified athletic trainer.”
Resch emphasizes that most often, young children play sports in youth leagues, while adolescents tend to join club or school sports. However, the only data collected on the presence of athletic trainers is on high school sports, where only 46 percent of schools have a full-time athletic trainer who is often responsible for all of the school’s teams.
“At this point, we just don’t know how many youth sports are being played with a certified athletic trainer or clinician trained in diagnosing concussions on the sidelines,” Resch said.
In place of having specifically trained individuals available during events, the role is often filled by emergency medical technicians
“EMTs are a vital member of the sports medicine team,” Resch said. “However, EMTs may receive limited training in concussion assessment.”
The article also draws attention to the inconsistent use of baseline testing to adequately and accurately diagnose concussions. These tests measure balance, average number of headaches, and memory and are used as a comparison for tests following suspected concussions.
“One challenge in diagnosing concussions is that we are often measuring how a concussion manifests itself in other symptoms in the body,” Resch said. “Because no two children are alike and no two concussions are alike, it is difficult to say a particular score on a particular assessment always means a concussion is present or not.”
Ultimately, the researchers conclude that while media has brought attention to the issue of concussions in sports, there is not nearly enough data on youth sports concussions.
“We need to continue to examine the data around concussions in youth sports and use that data to improve our efforts in education and recommendations for keeping young athletes safe,” Resch said