A recent study confirmed that youth football players sustain concussions from a lower level of impact than their adult counterparts.
The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, which specializes in investigating head tolerance to impact loading, released results of a first-of-its-kind study in the January issue of the Annals of Biomedical Engineering. The study showed that youth football players sustain concussions at lower levels of head acceleration than players at the high school, college and professional levels. However, concussions in youth football players are relatively rare due to the fact that they play with less force than adults.
“Children aren’t just scaled-down adults,” said Steve Rowson, director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, in a press release posted on EurekAlert. “Differences in anatomy and physiology, like head-neck proportions and brain development, contribute to differences in tolerance to head impact. These results can lead to data-driven interventions to reduce risk in youth sports.”
For years, the prevailing wisdom was that kids between the ages of 9 and 14 – the largest group of football players in the United States – were at a high risk for concussions due to having weaker neck muscles, larger heads relative to body size, and underdeveloped myelin sheaths that help protect brain cells.
The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab put this to the test after receiving a five-year grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health in 2015. The study tracked six youth football teams in Virginia, North Carolina and Rhode Island, placing sensors in the lining of more than 100 players’ helmets in order to measure the linear and rotational acceleration of their heads over the course of four seasons. All concussions were diagnosed by on-site clinicians, while players’ cognitive function was tested before and after each season.
At the high school and college level, the average concussive impact has a head acceleration of about 102 g. That number is just 62 g in youth players. The concussion-causing rotational acceleration is 4,412 rad/s2 in adults, compared to 2,609 rad/s2 in youth players.
"These numbers prove for the first time that youth players are at a higher risk of injury at lower head accelerations," Duma said. "But it is important to note that the overall head acceleration exposure in youth football is much lower than in adult football."