Applied Evidence

Sport-related concussion: How best to help young athletes

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Increased focus on sports concussion means you’re likely to see greater numbers of children and adolescents with mild brain trauma. Here’s what to keep in mind.


From The Journal of Family Practice | 2016;65(8):538-544,546.



› Require athletes who sustain a concussion to wait a minimum of 7 to 10 days before returning to full unrestricted activity. C
› Ensure that any player diagnosed with concussion follows a guided return-to-play progression, supervised by an athletic trainer or physical therapist experienced in post-concussion care. C
› Advise patients who are old enough to drive not to do so for at least 24 hours after a concussion. B

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series

Each year in the United States, more than 44 million young people participate in sports activities.1 Yet the number of concussions incurred annually by children and adolescents engaged in sports and recreational play has been underestimated for years, and largely unknown.1,2

Some estimates were based solely on the number of young athletes treated in emergency departments or sports concussion clinics. Others focused only on team players of middle school or high school age, excluding younger children who were hit in the head on playgrounds or during other recreational activities. What’s more, large numbers of concussions—as many as 4 in 10 incurred by high school athletes—were never reported to a coach or medical professional.3

In a new study published in the journal Pediatrics in June, researchers used national databases and current literature to provide what they believe to be “the most accurate and precise estimate of youth concussion” thus far: Between 1.1 and 1.9 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur among US youth ages 18 or younger annually.1

Standardized protocols for managing sport-related concussions have been adopted in most clinical settings. But use among primary care physicians is inconsistent.

Among young people playing team sports, concussions are between 2 and 7 times more likely to occur during competitive games than in practice sessions.4-7 Boys on football and ice hockey teams have the highest rates of concussion in young athletes.For overall number of concussions, however, girls on soccer teams are second only to football players.4 Female soccer players are more likely than male soccer players to sustain concussions during equal number of hours of play.4,7

An increase in incidence. The incidence of concussion among young athletes appears to have increased in the past decade, a likely result of greater involvement in team sports, an increasing focus on safeguarding young people from the potential dangers associated with a blow to the brain, and better diagnostic techniques.4,8-10 And a recent study based on data from electronic medical records at a large regional pediatric health care network found that more than three-quarters of young people with sports-related concussions were first seen in a primary care setting.2

With this in mind, we present a comprehensive update of the evidence regarding the diagnosis and management of sport-related concussion. The recommendations we include are consistent with professional association guidelines.8-10 Although we focus on concussion in children and adolescents involved in athletic activities, the principles generally apply to patients of all ages and to concussions that may not be sports related.

Removal from play: A vital first step

Whenever you conduct a physical exam for a young athlete, remind him or her—and the patient’s parents—that after a blow to the head, immediate removal from play is critical. Concussion is caused by a direct or indirect force to the brain that results in a transient disturbance in brain function,8-10 manifested by alterations in neurocognitive and motor function. While the signs and symptoms (TABLE 1)8-10 resolve within 10 days of injury in about 90% of cases, those who incur additional head impact within 24 hours have a higher symptom burden and prolonged recovery period.11 Even without repetitive impact, younger athletes may take longer to recover.8-10


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