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Sports-Related Brain Injuries Landing More Kids in ERs

iStock/Thinkstock(CINCINNATI) -- A small study from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital is likely to get the attention of doctors and may panic some parents, given recent worry over head injuries sustained in sports such as football, soccer and cheerleading.

In the new study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found a 92 percent increase in pediatric visits to their hospital emergency room for sports-related traumatic brain injury from 2002 to 2011.

But the overall severity of these cases appears to be decreasing.  Despite the increase in cases, the “injury severity scores” were lower and the number of kids admitted to the hospital for additional care remained the same -- a finding that study author Dr. Holly Hanson said indicates a higher level of concern among parents and coaches when it comes to sports-related head injury.  But she added that in most cases, the worry is warranted.

“In general, the children have had a real injury, and the family is responding appropriately,” said Hanson, a pediatric emergency room fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are more than a half a million ER visits annually for traumatic brain injury in children, and sports-related head injury is a significant contributor to these visits.

The most common sport causing a traumatic brain injury was football, which will come as little surprise to the public given the NFL’s recent settlement with former players.  Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and sports-related head injury expert, said the results provide hard evidence for what has been seen anecdotally.

“On athletic fields at all levels with professionals on the sideline, the recognition of concussion is going up,” said Cantu, who in the past has consulted with the NFL, NBA and NHL. 

The reason for this increased awareness?  Media coverage of head injury, which, he said, “empowers parents with the information to participate in their child’s illness.”

Research continues on factors as different as the physics of sports-related impacts, athlete risk factors, long-term effects, and return-to-play timelines.  Of growing interest: brain imaging and visual evidence of brain damage attributed to sports injury. 

Soon, Cantu said, doctors may be able to better understand exactly how these injuries occur.

“We are on the cusp of seeing concussion real time on imaging,” he said.

But the real hope is that researchers will one day be able to find ways that these injuries can be prevented in the first place.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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