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Small hits in sports can affect children's brains: study

Certain injuries are raising concerns among pediatricians and coaches in a new study.
December 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
When young athletes are hit in the field, they don't always have a concussion. But a new study shows that doesn't mean they're in the clear. Certain injuries are raising concerns among pediatricians and coaches.

Increasing awareness about head injuries in contact sports have led to many new safety guidelines and protocols. But can just playing a contact sport alone raise a child's risk for brain damage? A new report suggests even small head injuries or hits may be enough to cause damage.

"Rough and tumble" happens in all contact sports. Now a new report in the journal Neurology suggests head injuries, even without a concussion, can cause changes in an area of the brain called the corpus callosum.

"That's the part of the brain that is between the two hemispheres, so there's a lot of communication that happens through that area in the brain. It's often the first to be injured," said Dr. Tracy Zaslow, director of the Sports Concussion Program, Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Injury to the corpus callosum was associated with poorer performance in verbal learning and memory.

Zaslow says all the athletes in the study were concussion-free.

But: "There were changes in the brain of those who played contact sports versus those who did not play contact sports," said Zaslow.

While the study suggests all head trauma is dangerous regardless of severity, parents know you can't protect your kids 24 hours a day, but Dr. Zaslow says it's all about minimizing risk.

"Playing by the rules and using appropriate technique in their sports activities is always ideal and is going to minimize injuries to the head and otherwise," said Zaslow.

Researchers say further studies are needed to clarify if these changes are permanent or temporary.

Dr. Zaslow says she and her colleagues are also doing their own research to track the effects of sub-concussive head trauma on the brain.