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Youth Football: How to Stay Safe

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Youth Football: How to Stay Safe

According to Sports & Fitness Industry Association data, in 2015, 1.63 million children between the ages of 6-12 participated in tackle football. With youth athletes suiting up in pads and helmets way before their teenage years, UnityPoint Health provider, Quentin Stenger, PA-C, highlights the football safety concerns parents should know, before their child takes the field.

Common Football Injuries

When discussing common football injuries, concussions often come first to mind. While concussions definitely should be taken seriously, Stenger draws attention to another condition, called compartment syndrome. Compartment syndrome occurs when there is significant trauma to a muscle, which starts out like normal bruising but continues to bleed and increases pressure within a muscle.

"One football-related example would be the knee of one player causing a major bruise on the thigh of another from tackling," Stenger says. "The player might shake it off initially as a charley horse. Bruising is an expected part of the game, but what sets compartment syndrome apart is the bleeding within the muscle that continues well after the game is over."

Key symptoms to watch for include:

  • Extreme tightness of the muscle, to the point where it can’t be moved.
  • Pain around the bruising will continue to intensify through the night, whereas a simple bruise will not rapidly worsen.
  • If the player continues to have severe pain and the muscle continues to swell and become tight throughout the whole leg, visit the emergency room right away.

Stenger says the other football injuries seen most often includes rotator cuff injuries in quarterbacks, ankle sprains, shoulder separations and ACL/meniscal knee injuries.

Football Helmet Safety

The question about whether one football helmet is better than another is gaining momentum, but Stenger says there is more to learn about helmet technology.

"A recent study from the American Academy of Neurology shows the helmets currently being used aren't protecting hits to the side of the head well. On average, helmets are only 20 percent effective in reducing traumatic brain injury," Stenger says.

No matter what, Stenger says one safety measure parents can take is making sure their child's helmet, as well as other football equipment, like pads and shoes, fits properly and is not loose.

The Safest Way to Tackle

Tackling may look like it's about who can hit the hardest, but there is proper technique involved. Teaching children at a young age the right way to tackle is a large part of football safety.

"USA football seems to be doing a good job outlining this to players and parents, and they have some great videos that are easy to understand. The major thing to remember is to keep the head up, and never lower the head when tackling. The top (crown) of the helmet should never be first to contact an opponent. If any part of the helmet is to make contact, it should be the facemask against the chest of the offensive player," Stenger says.

How Young is too Young

Stenger acknowledges the age when youth start playing tackle football is certainly a controversial topic.

"Researchers studied ex-National Football League (NFL) players and compared those who reported playing contact football before the age of 12 to those ex-NFL players who started contact after age 12," Stenger says. "They found there is a significant decrease in mental function later in life in the players who started contact before the age of 12."

Stenger says flag football is a good option for kids looking to participate in the sport, with less risk than putting on football pads.

"As a former football participant, enthusiast and parent to a young son, I have put a lot of thought into this. Personally, if my child chooses football as a sport of interest, my wife and I will have him start with flag football first and then transition to contact after the age of 12, unless new research emerges with more recommendations."

For more questions regarding your child's health, contact your UnityPoint Health provider.