Children’s emergency room visits for concussion increased 60% over eight years, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — but that’s not necessarily bad news.
The authors said that the increase was likely due to broader awareness of concussion and head injuries, not because the actual number of concussions was increasing.
The researchers looked at all non-fatal traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in kids and teens younger than 19, including skull fractures and bleeding in the brain, presented at 66 hospital emergency departments between 2001 through 2009. They found that the rate of head injury increased from 153,375 in 2001 to 248,418 in 2009.
The sports most likely to lead to head injury were bicycling, football, playground activities, basketball and soccer. Playground injuries were the most common reason that kids under 10 visited the ER with head injuries. For boys aged 10 to 19, football and biking caused the most head injuries — especially football in high-school aged boys. In girls aged 10 to 19, the most common sports contributing to ER visits for head injury were soccer, basketball and bicycling.
The researchers think the increase is driven largely by growing awareness of head injuries among parents, coaches and kids. If the number of concussions were actually increasing, the researchers said they would have seen an increase in admissions to the hospital for head injury — not just visits to the ER — but they did not. That suggests that supervising adults are now more likely than in the past to get kids checked out for possible head injury.
“These injuries were always there. It’s not that there are more injuries now. It’s just that now people are getting treatment that they weren’t getting before,” Steven Marshall, interim director of the University of North Carolina’s Injury Prevention and Research Center, told USA Today. While he was not involved in the new research, his center studies the effects of traumatic brain injury on later cognitive function.
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Collision sports, at both the professional and youth levels, have come under increasing attention because of the long-term effects of repeated head trauma. On Thursday, TIME’s Sean Gregory reported that former NHL star Rick Martin was discovered to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that strikes people who have suffered repeated traumatic brain injury.
Further, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research estimates that more than 500,000 concussions are sustained by the 4.4 million children who play tackle football, according to the New York Times.
For more info on how to recognize and respond to concussion or mild TBI, see the CDC’s website.