More youth head injuries or more awareness?

CHICAGO –The number of children being diagnosed with concussions doubled in recent years, emergency-room data suggest, but the injuries don’t seem to be getting any worse.

In fact, the percentage of kids hospitalized after ER treatment for concussions declined during the 10-year study. That suggests the increase reflects more people knowing about the potential dangers of concussions, said Dr. Jeffrey Colvin, the study’s lead author and a pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo.

The results echo other research, including a recent study showing a big increase in the number of child athletes getting hospital treatment for concussions. Experts think awareness, rather than a true increase in head injuries, is involved.

A decade ago, many children, parents and coaches shrugged off concussions as “just a ding” and nothing to worry about, Colvin said. That has changed with mounting research on concussions and rising concerns that repeat concussions may have contributed to brain damage in some retired NFL players.

“Teams are being penalized because of aggressive hits on other players; there’s just constant chatter about concussions,” he said.

Colvin and colleagues analyzed 2001-10 medical records from 14 children’s hospitals nationwide, including the Kansas City hospital. Emergency room doctors diagnosed concussions in 2,126 children aged 18 and younger in 2001. The number more than doubled to 4,967 in 2010.

In 2001, about 25 percent of the children were hospitalized for concussion treatment, versus only about 9 percent of kids in 2010.

Colvin prepared a brief report about the study for presentation at a Pediatrics Academic Societies meeting in Boston.

Evidence suggests more than 170,000 U.S. children receive emergency room treatment for concussions each year.

In the new study, causes for the concussions included sports, falls and traffic accidents. Details about severity of the injuries, how long kids were hospitalized, and how they fared afterward was not included in the report.

Dr. Rebecca Carl, a sports medicine specialist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said her own hospital has seen similar increases, partly due to legislation Illinois adopted last year that says child athletes suspected of having a concussion should be removed from play and evaluated by a doctor.

Carl said all kids with suspected concussions should see a doctor. Those knocked unconscious, or with symptoms including headaches, vomiting or mental confusion, should get emergency room treatment, she said.