Ask Dr. Skendzel: Given emerging research about concussions, is it safe for my child to play high school football?

Emerging research suggests that concussions sustained by high school football players can result in serious injury. Sports medicine physician Dr. Jack Skendzel helps parents evaluate the risks.

Falling autumn leaves and high school football playoffs go hand-in-hand. Sports traditions run deep in Minnesota, but recently, the National Academy of Sciences has reported concerns about football concussion injuries. Medical experts have found that the average high school player is nearly twice as likely to suffer a brain injury as a college player, prompting some parents to question the safety of the game.

“We are finding that football players—especially at the high school level—are sustaining brain injury as the result of concussions on the field,” affirms Dr. Jack Skendzel, one of Summit’s sports medicine surgeons with a focus on treating young athletes. “Even in young children, concussion may have long term effects in terms of ability of focus and cognition—and that’s concerning. The risk of serious injury becomes exponentially higher with second impact syndrome, which occurs when a child suffers a mild concussion, and then goes back into the game and sustains a second concussion. If a young player takes a second hit after his brain is already injured, the consequences can be fatal.”

Research funded by the NFL has shown that new helmet technology does not protect against brain injuries. However, data does indicate that the majority of high school and college football concussions come from foul play versus clean hits. When coaches stress the importance of playing fairly, teaching players not to foul, and training them to tackle and take a tackle properly, risks are reduced.

Awareness has led to better safety protocols. “Before we understood the risks, a concussed player was pulled to the sideline, but allowed to go back into the game if they appeared to recover within 15 minutes,” Skendzel explains. “Today, in football and most sports, if a player has any symptoms of concussion like headache, dizziness, nausea, or disorientation, he is pulled from the game and is not allowed to return. In some states, this is the law.”

“Second impact syndrome is the worst case scenario,” says Skendzel. “However, when a concussion is mild and the player is pulled from the game, research shows that concussions usually resolve within seven to ten days of rest. We still have to exercise great care with these patients. Our treatment is completely individualized based on the child’s specific symptoms and how long they last. A player has to be symptom free, and complete a return-to-sport protocol without any symptoms returning, before they can resume playing.”

“Parents want to know why the rate of concussion is so much higher among high schoolers, and that’s a great question,” Skendzel says. “The rate of concussion may look higher among high school kids because they are living at home with vigilant parents who notice when their child is having problems. Compare that to college, where a player is living in a dorm and going to a huge lecture hall. We don’t know if there are more injuries in high school, or if injuries are simply reported more often in high school because social relationships at home and school are closer during the high school years. Finally, college and pro players may benefit from the higher standard of care provided by teams of neurologists and other medical experts. High schools can’t afford the same medical resources.

“When a parent asks me if they should let their kid play football, I sit down and talk with them. I’m not going to let my kids play football; the research is sobering, and there are so many less dangerous sports alternatives out there. However, football is ingrained in our culture, and I know that a lot of families have strong football traditions. There are precautions parents can take short of refusing to allow their kids to play.”

For parents who want to encourage their high schoolers to consider sports with lower risks, Dr. Skendzel recommends hockey, boy’s soccer, basketball, and swimming. “Athletic activity is great for kids,” Dr. Skendzel grins. “My job is to help educate my patients and their parents so that they can reduce the risks and make safe choices.”

Sports medicine: Expert bone, joint, and muscle care

From Olympians to pro athletes to youth sports and those that just want to be more active – Summit Orthopedics delivers expert care by fellowship-trained sports medicine physicians. If you are recently injured or concerned about ongoing pain, Summit Orthopedics sports medicine specialists have the expertise to evaluate your discomfort and develop a plan to quickly and safely help you get back to being active.

Start your journey to a more active self: Find your sports medicine expert, request an appointment online, or call us at 651-968-5201 to schedule a sports medicine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as several additional community clinics.

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  • Jack Skendzel, M.D.

    “An active lifestyle requires superior physical function, and I understand that my patients have exceptionally high standards for their performance and joint health. My goal is to return patients to optimal function so that they can continue to perform and master their personal athletic goals.”

    More about this expert

  • Stacy (Eck) Sanders, PT, MPT, OCS

    “In today’s world where the focus has gone to achieving such high levels of athletic competition and ability, it is important to remember proper training and being educated on proper fitness health to avoid overuse injuries.”

    More about this expert

  • Dan Peterson, Lead PA-C

    “Wear a helmet whenever participating in activities
    that pose a head injury risk.”

    More about this expert

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