This week, Texas will launch what state officials say is the nation's largest effort to track brain injuries among young athletes.
The University Interscholastic League, Texas' governing body for public high school sports, is partnering with the O'Donnell Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center for the project, from which they hope to gauge whether rules or equipment changes are improving player safety and what more can be done to protect athletes.
“This is a groundbreaking initial step,” said Dr. Munro Cullum, Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology and Neurotherapeutics and Neurological Surgery with the O’Donnell Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center. "I think we’re on the verge of a very impactful project that will inform the nation about the frequency and some basic information about concussion and recovery in student-athletes."
A state as large as Texas, which has more than 800,000 public high school athletes, would be a key step in developing a national database of brain injuries in youths, officials say.
Already, the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is seeking federal funding for such a database.
"Until we understand what the frequency of concussions is across the state, or a region of the state, we can't determine when rule changes, equipment changes or things like recovery programs are really being effective," Cullum said.
All 50 states in recent years have passed rules or laws to address concussions in youth athletics from research to protocols for identifying concussions and setting rules for return to play. The CDC has estimated that up to 3.8 million concussions occur in sports and recreational activities each year, but some experts wonder if those numbers underestimate total brain injuries, as some individuals may not seek treatment for mild or moderate symptoms.
“The health and safety of our student participants is at the forefront of everything we do,” UIL Executive Director Charles Breithaupt said. “The UIL Medical Advisory Committee has been focused on concussions since its inception 15 years ago and this concussion registry will provide valuable information and help us continue to improve the safety of extracurricular athletics.”
The Texas program will track about two-dozen sports, from football to girls' soccer, recording what caused an injury, recovery time and other data.
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Other states have researched head injuries, too.
In Michigan, which requires schools to report concussions, a recent concussion study showed 755 schools reported 4,452 head injuries in the 2015-2016 school year. Football had the most — 1,907 — and girls' basketball ranked No. 2 with 454.
It tracked details such as whether the injury occurred in practice or a game, whether the athlete had to miss class and how long it took them to return to competition. That research is being shared with Michigan State University's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
The study will collect more concussion data than it has before, University Interscholastic League deputy director Jamey Harrison said. Currently, requires only one school from each district report concussions as part of a weekly injury reporting system, though each school in the football playoffs is required to report concussions.
"Right now it's a sample that is just a snapshot. It's not scientific," Harrison said. "We need to move beyond that."