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11/17/15blog post

safety and tackling in youth football - part 1

American football is one of the most popular sports for boys ages 5 and over. It is generally safe and has a positive impact on physical, social and academic health. But like all sports, it is not risk-free.

As concussions get increased media attention, parents are beginning to ask if they should let their children play football. I am often asked by friends, family, colleagues, and patients if I would let my own kids play football. My husband and I frequently have this discussion too, without a clear-cut decision. Until now.

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released their much-anticipated recommendations on the subject. I will briefly cover background information, which led to the final policy statement, followed by guidelines and my personal opinion.

What we know about football injuries

  • The most common injuries in football occur in the knee, ankle, hand and back. Head and neck injuries only make up about 10% of all football injuries. Even less of those are concussions.
  • For ages 7-13, non-catastrophic injuries happen as frequently in other team sports as they do in football. However, football injuries usually require more time off compared to other sports.
  • At all ages, catastrophic head and neck injuries happen more frequently in football than most other sports. The rates are about the same as gymnastics, and lower than ice hockey.
  • Younger football players have lower risk of injury than older players.

What we know about tackling

  • Tackling, or being tackled, accounts for about half of all football injuries
  • Improper technique – especially spear-tackling (head first, chin down) – is the most common cause of catastrophic head and neck injuries associated with tackling.
  • Spear tackling was banned in 1976, but it still happens

What we know about head impacts

  • High school football players average 774 impacts per player per season. This number varies by position.
  • High school football players have more impacts during games than they do in practice.
  • Younger football players have less impacts than high school players each season.
  • Younger football players have more impacts, and higher velocity impacts, during practice compared to games.
  • 69% of deaths during football are related to brain injury. The most common is a subdural hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain). Tackling is the most common cause of this injury in football.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

  • This refers to a collection of neurologic and cognitive problems, along with changes in the brain tissue found at autopsy
  • Our knowledge of CTE is very limited
  • Repeated, frequent, small head blows, which do not cause symptoms, may cause more long-term problems than infrequent symptomatic concussions
  • There are high-profile athletes who retired from sports with repeated head injuries, all with CTE. Whether the head injuries caused the CTE, or if other factors played a role (drugs, alcohol, performance-enhancing substances, etc.) is still unknown.

So how can one reduce injuries in youth football?

There are several ideas on how to reduce injuries from tackling in youth football. All come with their own pros and cons.

Stay tuned for part 2 in this series to find out!