For young athletes, head contact and infections can pose costly risks

muddy_sunday_feature-300x199Parents happily send their eager youngsters off to a demanding array of sports activities,  in the belief that athletics will improve their health and well-being. But, especially for active young men, life as a jock can carry costly long-term risks and immediate infection perils.

A Yale economist and colleagues have scrutinized available public data and estimated that by changing some contact sports like football into their less violent forms (like touch or flag versions), almost 50,000 fewer collegiate and 600,000 or so high school injuries would be averted. Figuring in the costs of medical care and time lost, this could mean a savings of $1.5 billion at the college level and $19.2 billion for high schools.

The researchers came to these big sum conclusions after looking at four types of serious injuries: concussions and damage to the nervous system, bone injuries, torn tissue, and muscle and cartilage injuries. They said that the popularity and prevalence of high contact sports like football in explaining why athletics’ economic toll can be so high.

It is a growing issue for schools, as insurance costs soar and more evidence builds about lifetime harms that athletes, male and female, can suffer from injuries to the head. Recent research on more than 200 subjects has painted an unhappy picture of what happens to players who launch early into contact football: Those who play “tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after they turned 12,” according to the long-term  study reported on in another story by the New York Times.

Although experts, including those in a major, dubious initiative led by the National Football League, have tried to assuage parents by changing rules and practices in the youth game to reduce concussion risks, more grown-ups and youngsters are re-thinking the once gung-ho obsession with peewee, junior and senior high, and even collegiate football, the New York Times says.

In a separate article, the paper also reminds that young jocks, particularly less than hygienic boys and young men, are subject to an array of serious infections. These include bouts of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, forms of herpes, various fungi, as well as measles, mumps, meningitis, and whooping cough. They have reached sufficient scope and scale, often sweeping through locker rooms and schools, that pediatricians in their professional journal have chronicled the (often disgusting) conditions and have warned:

Minimizing risk requires leadership by the organized sports community (including the athlete’s primary care provider) and depends on outlining key hygiene behaviors, recognition, diagnosis, and treatment of common sports-related infections, and the implementation of preventive interventions.

The doctors say their colleagues, at handy times like athletes’ sports physicals, should remind young patients about the importance of cleanliness, vaccinations, not sharing athletic gear, towels, and personal care items, and seeking appropriate medical care for their sports infections and injuries.

Keeping lines of communication open with young athletes is important for pediatricians, their colleagues insist, because sports can be valuable to the young for socialization and their development of important life skills. Athletics also are such a big part of youngsters’ lives that they can’t be ignored. And, let’s face it, it can be fun to get down and dirty, such as through Notre Dame’s charitable fund-raising Muddy Sunday football games.

It’s not enough for grown-ups to blame young men. Don’t forget that many of these youths have younger siblings and as has been shown with the flu, infections easily spread in a house, too.

As for sports and their head contact woes—let’s not forget they can occur in pastimes from soccer to cheerleading to synchronized swimming and affect girls and young women as well — it is good to know that there are glimmers of advancement in ways to test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that afflicts many professional football players and other athletes who have sustained repeated blows to the head.

Boston University experts, who have done some of the important CTE research that has found its scary prevalence and advancement in post-mortem studies of NFL players, say they are making head way with detection of a tell-tale protein that appears to circulate more in body fluids of those with CTE. That may let them test living athletes for the condition. Stay tuned.

Meantime, moderation and caution about the sporting life for our youngsters makes a lot of sense. Heads up.

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