EVERY YEAR, more than 1 million children and teenagers in the United States suffer a concussion. Or maybe closer to 2 million do: A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics is the most precise estimate to date of sports- and recreation-related concussions among American youths — but it is still not precise, because there is no national system that tracks all concussions.
Most attention to the United States’ concussion crisis has centered on professional and collegiate football players. Last week, the University of Notre Dame’s star wide receiver, Corey Robinson — son of Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson — announced he was quitting football after three diagnosed concussions in the past year. In March 2015, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland abruptly retired from the National Football League after just one season of professional ball, calling the game “inherently dangerous.” He has a point: Study after study reveal a connection between football and brain injuries that can lead to memory loss, depression and death.
We’ve said before that the NFL must reform its game. But concussions don’t happen only in sold-out stadiums: As this new study shows, they also are all too common on high school fields and even kindergarten playgrounds — and not just in football. The researchers estimate between 1.1 million and 1.9 million children are concussed annually. But they can’t be sure how big the problem is.
Many concussions go unnoticed ; many children go untreated. What’s more, most monitoring systems focus on student-athletes, when recreation league games can carry as much risk. Each system culls incidence information from only one type of provider, whereas injured youths receive care in a variety of settings. That means there’s no centralized source to see who is getting concussed — or how.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to create and oversee a surveillance system to collect data on concussions across the country, as the Institute of Medicine has recommended. That system should focus on capturing concussion rates among all populations — especially youths, and not just school athletes — with an eye toward risk factors and opportunities for intervention.
There’s a long way to go on concussion control for children and adults alike. Better data collection will not solve problems of underdiagnosis or improper care, and it’s still hard to say what changes to sporting rules could cut down on injuries — whether speeding the play clock in the NFL or limiting soccer-ball heading among young children, as the U.S. Soccer Federation has recommended. But a centralized system would mark a step forward: Without the numbers to understand the problem, it’s hard to begin the work of prevention in an intelligent way.