Head injuries decrease in high school but girls’ rate is higher

By EMILY LOVASZ
Capital News Service

LANSING — Sixteen high school sports saw a decrease in reported head injuries from the 2015-16 school year to the 2016-17 school year, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA).

Head injuries increased or remained the same in 13 sports, according to the report. Overall, high school sport teams statewide reported 3,958 head injuries in 2016-17, down 11 percent from the year before. Boys and girls sports were reported separately.

Football led the list for boys and basketball led the list for girls. Soccer ranked second for both genders.

Of the 750 high schools in Michigan, 97 percent reported athletes’ head injuries to the sports association but not to the state.

The rate of injuries for girls is far higher than for boys, according to the report.

For every 1,000 girls who played basketball, there were 23.34 head injuries reported. For boys, that number was 7.90.

Similarly, softball had 10.70 head injuries reported for girls, while baseball had 3.89 reported for boys.

MHSAA promised its members not to release data for individual schools for fear it will be misinterpreted, said John Johnson, the MHSAA communications director. As a private organization, MHSAA isn’t required by law to release data it collects.

Although the MHSAA report shows changes from one year to the next, it is too early to call it a trend.

The numbers don’t mean anything, said Joanne Gerstner, the sports journalist-in-residence at Michigan State University and author of “Back in the Game: Why Concussion Doesn’t Have to End Your Athletic Career.”

Context is lacking because there are no numbers from five or 10 years ago, and some schools have a greater number of students, which could equal more head injuries, she said.

“We don’t know what it was 10 years ago,” Gerstner said. “We have our data set right here, and it is great. But we aren’t going to know what it means until 10 or 20 years from now when we can look at everything.”

Other factors come into play, such as reporting differences for girls and boys.   

In all the gender comparisons in similar sports, females have a greater risk for a concussion, said Tracey Covassin, an associate professor of kinesiology at Michigan State and an expert in the effects of concussions.

“One factor could be that females have weaker neck muscles, causing a faster rotation of their head. Since they have less mass, it is predisposing them to having more concussions,” Covassin said.

Studies also show that girls are more honest about reporting concussions.

Sports like football or hockey have a macho culture, Gerstner said, but it’s more acceptable for female athletes to admit something is wrong.

And Covassin said, “There is still a percentage of athletes who do not want to report their injury due to missing playing time. They do not think it is serious enough or they do not want to let their teammates down.”

The other thing that people don’t want to talk about is fear, Gerstner said. Many don’t know what a concussion is, they don’t want to admit that it’s possible or they’ve heard scary things about it, so they don’t say anything.

“People knew of the term concussion, but it was more along the lines of a knock to the head or, ‘it’s a little thing, get up and keep going,’” Gerstner said. “Now people are taking it much more seriously.”

Awareness has increased even in the last five years, she said. Being more proactive by working on neck strength, having less contact in practices and games, and even reducing practice time have helped prevent head injuries.

Every state has a law regarding youth sports and concussions, Gerstner said. If a child is thought to have sustained a head injury during practice or a game, he or she cannot play.

Johnson said schools continue to make sports safer by making sure they’re officiated properly, that rules emphasize safety and that equipment continues to get better.

“There is no one policy, no one rule or no one piece of equipment that will ever prevent a concussion or any injury,” Johnson said. “All we can do is put ourselves in the best position to minimize the risk.”

Schools are using the MHSAA head injury report as a surveillance system. Every high school must report to the association the total number of athletes it has in all sports and any time an athlete suffers a head injury.

That helps schools and the MHSAA find out what sports the concussions are happening in and what athletes are at a higher risk.

Covassin said, “We are more aware of concussions, we are better at diagnosing and evaluating concussions and I also think more athletes are more aware of the signs, symptoms and dangers of playing with a concussion.”

The reporting system is great, Gerstner said, but that alone doesn’t reduce injuries or risk. Rather, it’s everyone doing their part that helps.

“Using the reporting system has been a step in the right direction. Recording everything in a scientific mode is missing in most discussion in the media and pop culture,” Gerstner said. “The data is so new and we do not have a lot to show, but we are getting there.”