Laws to protect athletes’ brains do reduce concussions — eventually

girls playing soccer

HARD KNOCKS Girls had almost twice the annual rate of concussions as boys when researchers compared sports — soccer, basketball and baseball/softball — that both played.

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To guard against the dangers of concussions, by 2014, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had enacted laws to protect young athletes. More than 2½ years after these laws went on the books, repeat concussions began to decline among high school athletes, researchers report online October 19 in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers reviewed concussion data from 2005 to 2016 collected in an online system for sports injuries from a nationally representative sample of U.S. high schools. An estimated nearly 2.7 million reported concussions occurred during that time — an annual average of 39.8 concussions per 100,000 times a player hit the field for practice or games — among athletes in nine sports: football, basketball, soccer, baseball or wrestling for boys, and basketball, soccer, softball and volleyball for girls.  

Overall, the rate of new and recurrent concussions was climbing before the implementation of traumatic brain injury laws and continued to rise immediately after. But then, 2.6 years after the laws went into effect, the rate of recurrent concussions dropped roughly 10 percent, the authors say. New concussions showed a slight downturn beginning 3.8 years post-law.

Most of the new laws require education on symptoms and signs of concussions for athletes, coaches and parents. So greater awareness of symptoms rather than an actual uptick in injuries may be behind the initial increase in reported concussions in the post-statute period. And the drop in recurrent concussions may be due to the laws’ provisions that take athletes off the field after a concussion and keep them off until approved by a medical provider.

While the trends suggest that laws are having an impact, the researchers say, measures that focus on preventing concussions — not only taking steps after they happen — are needed.

Aimee Cunningham

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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