Youth football and concussions: Worth the risk?

Youth football and the National Football League are light years apart, yet both face a growing public concern: What are the risks of concussions?

Youth footballPeople from inside the game itself are among the headline-making voices of caution. More than 2,000 former NFL players are suing the league for not warning them about concussions. Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, an Iowa native, used the term “scary” to describe the idea of his two school-age sons playing football.

Kyle Smoot, MD
Kyle Smoot, MD

The crux of the attention being given to this issue is that so little is known about concussions, says Kyle Smoot, MD, from University of Iowa Sports Medicine. “Most of the data have been on professional, collegiate, high school and some junior high athletes but there is very little data on the grade school/youth football-aged population,” he says.

Accordingly, Smoot and a UI Sports Medicine colleague, Andrew Peterson, MD, are conducting their own study starting this fall. They are collaborating with several regional flag and tackle football leagues to:

  • Document the rates of all injuries in both tackle and flag football, including concussion
  • Compare the two types of leagues (tackle vs flag)
Andrew Peterson, MD, MSPH
Andrew Peterson, MD, MSPH

Leagues will report injuries to the research team through a standardized reporting system. While Smoot and Peterson have pursued leagues that are geographically close, they are open to discussing participation with any league that wishes to participate.

“Given the increased media attention to youth tackle football, we have had many patients inquire about the injury risk of tackle football and/or whether flag football was safer or recommended,” Smoot says. “Seeing no data to adequately address these questions, we decided to look at our own region (in eastern Iowa, tackle football is available in some areas for second graders through junior high age; most junior highs have tackle programs).”

Peterson says the most practical goal of the study would be to inform patients and parents about the risks and allow them to make informed decisions about participation. Ideally, he adds, they would like to study a group of athletes throughout their careers and track if those that played tackle football when they were younger are at higher risk for anything including concussion.

Smoot adds that in his own practice, he has not typically seen concussions from youth football, “although we have seen more concussions in junior high and high school This doesn’t mean pre-adolescent youths are not at risk.”

For more information about the UI study, call 319-384-7957.

Concussion Clinic: UI Sports Medicine offers a Concussion Clinic from 4 to 6 p.m. every Monday. To schedule an appointment, call 319-384-7070.

Iowa Public Television Program: Iowa Press roundtable discussion with Tom Wilson, head coach & athletic director, Dowling Catholic High School, Des Moines; Marv Cook, former Hawkeye and NFL tight end and current head football coach, Iowa City Regina High School; and Andy Peterson, MD, director, UI sports concussion program

–Fall 2013