What activities contribute to the greatest number of sports-related head injuries and what can be done to help prevent them?

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Answered by: Betsy, An Expert in the Preventing Sports Injury Category
Two popular sports cause thousands of serious neurological injuries … the good news is that most can be prevented

A teenage boy was riding his bike with his girlfriend straddling the bar and hanging onto his shoulder, neither of them wearing bike helmets. Even more unsettling was that he was juggling his cell phone with one hand and steering the bike through a crowded strip mall parking lot with the other. A group of teenage boys on skateboards were doing mid-air flips off a rickety wood picnic table onto a concrete surface outside a closed restaurant. None of them were wearing any protective gear. A preteen girl was rollerblading and texting a friend on her smart phone, nearly colliding with an elderly man in his driveway. She was not wearing any protective gear and was oblivious to the fact that she nearly knocked somebody down.

Three true-life scenarios witnessed on a warm summer day in a typical suburban Chicago neighborhood. Unfortunately, these types of activities seem to be far more common than people playing it safe. These incidents could have resulted in serious and potentially fatal head injuries. In fact, according to injury data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 450,000 sports-related head injuries are treated every year at U.S. hospital emergency rooms, and bikes are the number one cause with more than 85,000 injuries. There are about 600 bicycling deaths a year, with two-thirds attributed to traumatic brain injury.

Approved bicycle helmets can reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85 percent, yet only about half of cyclists wear a helmet when they ride, and even fewer understand how to wear them correctly. It is essential that the helmet fit properly so that it doesn’t fall off while riding or if you fall. Other prevention tips for cycling, skateboarding, or rollerblading include obeying all traffic signals, avoiding uneven or unpaved surfaces, not talking or texting on cell phones, and being aware of drivers and traffic.

A 13-year-old middle school football player suffered a paralyzing spinal injury and neck fracture after being tackled and driven into the ground during practice. The boy did not fully recover and was left quadriplegic. A 17-year-old high school football player collapsed on the sideline and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma (head injury), dying the following day. The autopsy revealed that a misdiagnosed concussion he suffered a few weeks earlier was really the same subdural hematoma that proved fatal when it bled again. Sadly, his physician had cleared him to play the very same day he suffered this fatal second injury.

Two true-life incidents reported by The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. The annual incidence of football-related concussion in the U.S. is estimated at 300,000. Football is the second highest contributor to sports-related head injuries after bicycling with approximately 48,000 treated annually at U.S. hospital emergency rooms.

There are a number of injury prevention protocols related to football, many of which have been implemented not only at the high school and college level, but also in the NFL. The key is that these protocols must be enforced. Football helmets should not be used to block, hit, and tackle and illegal spearing must be penalized. Ball carriers should be taught to not lower their heads when tackled to avoid helmet-to-helmet collisions.

Most neurological injuries can be avoided if players, parents and coaches take injury prevention and concussions seriously. Football players who have suffered a concussion must be withheld from play until all physical and neuropsychological symptoms/signs have resolved and they are cleared to return to play through an independent physician.

With bicycling and football as well as a host of other sporting activities, the most important thing to do is think first and play it safe. Wear approved helmets for all sports in which they are recommended. It is not worth suffering a potentially life-altering or even fatal injury for a moment in time. Take proper steps and help prevent head and neck injuries.

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