CHICAGO -- Emergency room visits for school-age athletes with concussions have skyrocketed in recent years, suggesting that the intensity of kids' sports has increased along with awareness of head injuries.
The findings in a study of national data don't necessarily mean that concussions are on the rise. However, many children aren't taken for medical treatment, so the numbers are likely only a snapshot of a much bigger problem, doctors say.
"It definitely is a disturbing trend," said the lead author, Dr. Lisa Bakhos, an ER physician in Neptune, N.J.
The study examined concussions in organized sports involving youths 8 to 19. ER visits for 14- to 19-year-olds went from about 7,000 in 1997 to nearly 22,000 in 2007. Among ages 8 to 13, visits went from 3,800 to almost 8,000.
While awareness has increased, many parents, coaches and players still don't understand how serious concussions can be, Bakhos said. Many seem less concerned with the injury than with how soon kids can return to sports.
"They want to know if they can play tomorrow, and you're just like, 'No!'" she said. "It's not just as simple as get up, shake it off and you'll be fine.
"If they're not treated properly, with rest, then they can have long-term problems," Bakhos said. Those include learning difficulties, memory problems and chronic headaches.
Resuming sports too soon risks another concussion that could be deadly or cause permanent brain damage, he said.
The study appears in Pediatrics, published online today, along with a report about sports-related concussions from the American Academy of Pediatrics' sports medicine council.
Researchers believe that young athletes may be more vulnerable to lasting damage from head injuries because their brains are still developing.