Deciding Whether to Go Back to Sports
Deciding whether an athlete can safely return to sports—or whether sports risk too much harm—is the responsibility of a trained healthcare provider judging the individual circumstances of a particular young athlete. Informed athletes and parents are their critical partners.
Their choices usually include:
- Returning the athlete to the same sport after a full recovery
- Returning to a different sport or activity that has a lower risk of concussion
- Stopping sports and activities that pose even a small risk of concussion
Athletes and parents can contribute to this decision-making conversation. It will be helpful for you to understand the risks and benefits of returning to play, and to tell your healthcare provider how you feel about them.
Weigh the risks
Many parents worry about the chance of a repeat concussion and what that means for athletes. Studies show that:
- Athletes who have had one concussion are at increased risk for another one.
- After one concussion, it may take less force or more minor contact to cause a repeat concussion, especially if the athlete returns to play too soon.
- After a repeat concussion, symptoms are usually worse.
- Athletes with repeat concussions are more likely to need longer to return to school and sports.
- A repeat concussion increases the chance that an athlete’s symptoms will last longer than four weeks.
There is less information about the impact of repeat concussions on children. Doctors don’t know exactly how long a child’s brain remains vulnerable after a concussion. They also don’t know what effect repeat concussions during childhood have on the long-term health of the brain. Currently, there is no evidence that concussions in childhood alone cause the worrisome condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“At this time, there is no research that causally links youth contact sport participation with a risk for CTE,” report the authors of a fact sheet released by the Sports Neuropsychology Society in 2018. “To date, there have been no reports of CTE in young children.”
According to a 2014 report by the Institute of Medicine, “Very few studies—and none that included pre-high-school-age athletes—have tracked the course of recovery for youth from sports concussion over time.”
Without more research, it is impossible to know how concussions will affect the way children and adolescents learn, remember, feel and function as they progress through adulthood. However, in the meantime, it makes sense to do everything possible to make youth sports safe, including taking unnecessary head contact out of sports. (See also, Concussion Prevention: What Works, What Doesn’t)
Consider the benefits
Parents and athletes also need to weigh the well-documented benefits of movement, play and sports against the health risks of doing nothing. Physical activity in childhood and adolescence has both immediate and long-term benefits. It can:
- boost physical, mental and social health
- help prevent inactivity-related diseases that occur in childhood
- lower the long-term risk of certain diseases in adulthood
- help prevent obesity and aid in its treatment
Deciding whether a child can safely return to sports—or whether sports risk too much harm—is the responsibility of a trained healthcare provider judging the individual circumstances of a particular young athlete. Informed athletes and parents are their critical partners.