Kids, Contact Sports, and Brain Damage

Research shows that repeated concussions can lead to impairment

Kids who play contact sports are at risk of repeated head trauma and concussion.

Studies suggest that around 130,000 children under the age of 18 experience sports-related head trauma every year. Most kids who are diagnosed with a concussion recover; however, research indicates that repeated concussions throughout childhood and adolescence may cause permanent changes in how the brain functions.

Children playing football on a sunny day
Tetra Images - Erik Isakson / Getty Images

This is because the brain is actively developing throughout childhood. Brain injuries take energy and time away from learning and development processes. That time and energy are instead spent on trying to heal as much of the brain injury as possible.

Head trauma during sports usually happens from a blow to the head from another player, the ground, or an object. The blow causes the brain to bang against the front and back of the skull. This motion tears nerve cells and can cause bleeding inside or around the brain .

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that may or may not result in a brief loss of consciousness. There may be damage to the brain even if the loss of consciousness does not happen, so that should not be the only sign to look for.

If a child has any of the following symptoms after sporting related head trauma s/he needs to be seen in the emergency room immediately:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Difficulty speaking, slurring words
  • Trouble maintaining balance or walking
  • Severe headache or a headache that progressively gets worse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Becoming unresponsive (not waking up)

Permanent Brain Changes

The brain is still developing during childhood, and skills such as language, critical thinking and problem-solving have not yet been fully established.

Each time there is head trauma the brain has to fix the damage; if nerve cells were torn, new pathways of communicating information inside the brain need to be found and learned. Swelling may result in decreased blood flow to lobes of the brain that are responsible for important skills. Nerve cell damage forces the brain to reroute how impulses and information are sent and received. In a developing child’s brain, this may detract from overall learning ability.

According to research, it’s dangerous if the head trauma and concussion happen at the same time that essential learning and thinking skills are developing. If the child’s brain is learning problem-solving or critical thinking and this process is interrupted, then these skills may not progress the way they should. The head trauma interferes with the normal learning process.

It is particularly damaging if brain injury happens over and over again. Each time the brain is traumatized it has to recover, and if it hasn’t had time to fully heal since the last concussion, this slows or even stops the process.

Child Head Trauma Recommendations

Doctors who treat head trauma and traumatic brain injury in kids now recommend that any time there is a blow to the head and a concussion from head trauma, the child:

  1. Immediately stop practicing or playing
  2. Be fully evaluated by a doctor before starting to practice or play again
  3. Have adequate time to rest to allow the brain to completely recover. If any of the above listed signs of concussion were present, the recovery time may need to last several weeks.

These restrictions are hard for kids to follow, especially if they are active in sports. A couple of weeks on the sidelines can change an entire season.

However, it is important to remember that repeated head trauma may have long-term neurological consequences and affect a child’s entire life. These include impaired learning, thinking, and reasoning undermining school success as well as the potential increased risk for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other dementias later in life .

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Prins M, Greco T, Alexander D, Giza CC. The pathophysiology of traumatic brain injury at a glance. Dis Model Mech. 2013;6(6):1307-15. doi:10.1242/dmm.011585

  2. Yeates KO, Kaizar E, Rusin J, et al. Reliable change in postconcussive symptoms and its functional consequences among children with mild traumatic brain injury. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(7):615-22. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.1082

  3. Columbia University Department of Neurology. Head Injury.

  4. Mckinlay A, Grace R, Horwood J, Fergusson D, Macfarlane M. Adolescent psychiatric symptoms following preschool childhood mild traumatic brain injury: evidence from a birth cohort. J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2009;24(3):221-7. doi:10.1097/htr.0b013e3181a40590

  5. Li Y, Li Y, Li X, et al. Head Injury as a Risk Factor for Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 32 Observational StudiesPLoS One. 2017;12(1):e0169650. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169650

Additional Reading

By Eva Hvingelby, NP, PhD
Eva Hvingelby NP, PhD, is a nurse practitioner, researcher, educator, and health consultant specializing in trauma.