Rise in young athletes' brain trauma spurs call for action

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A surge in sports-related brain injuries among the youth is pushing U.S. health officials to call for public policy changes after similar safety efforts helped reduce head-trauma deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

A 40 percent drop since 1980 in traumatic brain injury deaths from car crashes can serve as an example for initiatives that target contact sports such as football, according to a report today from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Traumatic brain injuries suffered by people under age 19 from sports and recreation activities rose 60 percent from 2001 to 2009, the CDC said, citing data released earlier.

Lawsuits against the National Football League and the suicides of prominent former professional athletes have created scrutiny of the long-term effects of head injuries suffered on playing fields. The Institute of Medicine, an advisory panel to U.S. policymakers, began an investigation this year into the risk of sports concussions for players from elementary school age through young adulthood.

While deaths from brain trauma among those ages 15 to 19 have been cut in half from 1999 to 2010, emergency room trips for athletic injuries by those teenagers have greatly increased, the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The Atlanta-based agency has begun collaborating with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NFL and other sports groups to educate coaches and players about how to treat potential on- field trauma or prevent it altogether.

Traumatic brain injuries are caused by collisions or jolts to the head that disrupt normal brain function. Concussions, a mild form of traumatic brain injuries that constitute three quarters of diagnoses, are common within contact sports such as football and lacrosse.

More than 3,000 former players and their families have sued the NFL seeking damages for head injuries, as well as for allegedly concealing data about the long-term dangers of repeated concussions. The family of linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May 2012, also sued the league on the contention that brain damage sustained during his 20 seasons drove him to his death.

Including all causes, such as falls and assaults, at least 2.4 million emergency department visits, hospitalizations, or deaths were related to a traumatic brain injury in 2009, the CDC said. Brain trauma cost an estimated $76.5 billion in direct U.S. medical expenditures and indirect costs such as lost wages and productivity.

Among the general population, falls cause more than 35 percent of traumatic brain injury, though children under 14 and adults over 65 are more susceptible to accidents in this way. Motor vehicle crashes and blunt impact each contribute 17 percent.