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Concussions in high school sports have declined by 40% – but risk of CTE still on rise

Concussions in high school sports are declining, but rates of football head trauma are still on the rise, a study published Tuesday found.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that recurrent concussions across all sports have fallen by 40 percent

However, concussion rates during football games increased by 18 percent from 2013 to 2018.

This raises the risk of players eventually developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological condition associated with repeated head trauma.  

A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found that concussion rates during football games increased by 18 % from 2013 to 2018 (file image)

Around one in five high school athletes who play contact sports suffer concussions every year, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medial Center.

However, there have been attempts to drive these numbers down.

Currently, all 50 states have adopted legislation that requires minimum return-to-play rules for students athletes that suffered concussions.  

For the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, the team looked at concussion rates for 20 different high school sports.

These include: boys’ baseball, basketball, cross country, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, swimming and diving, track and field, wrestling; girls’ basketball, cross country, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, track and field, volleyball; an co-ed cheerleading. 

Researchers looked at more than 9,500 concussions that occurred between the 2013-2014 and 2017-2018 school years using data from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study database.

Concussions were defined as occurring during practice or play, requiring medical attention and being formally diagnosed.

Rates of concussion were measured via each athlete’s ‘exposure’ in their sport, meaning each time they played in practice or in a game that could have put them at risk for head trauma.

Researchers found that boys’ football had the highest concussion rate at 10.40 per 10,000 athlete exposures, followed by girls’ soccer and boys’ ice hockey.

While practice-related concussion rates and recurrent concussion rates decreased during the study period, football head trauma during games did not.

Rates of football competition-related concussions increased 33.19 per 10,000 athlete exposures to 39.07 per 10,000 – a nearly 20 percent spike.

Past research has shown that repeated head trauma can lead to the neurological condition CTE.

Stages I and II are marked by headaches, mood swings, depression and short-term memory loss while stages III and IV are associated with aggression, severe memory loss, difficulty with language and loss of attention. 

It increases the risk of aggressive behavior and suicide. 

CTE was discovered in 2002 by Dr Bennet Omalu, who noticed a strange neurologic condition associated with chronic head trauma in football players and boxers.

Professional football has been plagued by controversy since the landmark study by Boston University in July 2017 that found CTE in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains donated to scientific research.

The study included the brains of famed players Aaron Hernandez and Junior Seau, both of whom committed suicide.

In those with a history of multiple head injuries, the rate of CTE is about 30 percent, according to a study from the University of Florida, Gainesville. 

For future research, the UNC team says it wants to monitor concussion trends and see how effective prevention strategies are.

‘These results matter for all stakeholders involved in high school sports: parents, coaches, athletes, as well as researchers,’ co-author Dr Avinash Chandran, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told CNN.