August 22, 2014

Players, leagues benefiting from USC sports injury study

Reagan Blackwell smashed his shoulder into the ground while making a tackle, suffering more than the typical pain of a collision.

About 10 percent of players suffered injuries serious enough to seek treatment and about 3 percent were diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms, according to preliminary data from a two-year study of youth football programs in the Midlands.

To parents and league organizers, the data is less important than the medical attention given to the players as part of the study. They appreciate that sprains and strains are being diagnosed and treated at practices rather than leaving them to debate whether to take a child to an urgent care center or emergency room.

But in the long term, the more important result of the study could be improvements that reduce injuries.

“By looking at the different leagues, each league has different policies, different procedures, different safety standards,” said Miranda Jensen, a second-year athletic training graduate student at the University of South Carolina. “It’s important to see if there is a correlation that is indicating that the kids are more likely to be injured” under one set of standards over another.

The data from the first two years of the study hasn’t been published yet, but the basic findings were that 10 percent of the 4,000 players suffered injuries ranging from serious contusions to sprains to broken bones, said Jim Mensch, director of the athletic training program at USC. The vast majority returned to practice or play in one to three days.

Slightly more than 3 percent of players suffered concussion-like symptoms, which is a much lower rate than the 7 percent to 9 percent registered in some high school and college studies, Mensch said. He suspects the lower rate is related to the size of the players, and the fact that no player under age 7 suffered a concussion backs up that suspicion.

“The biggest predictor of (overall) injury wasn’t by size or age, it was by team,” Mensch said. “That tells me it’s related to coaching and the way practices are set up. That shows the need for quality coaches is vital.”

The effort, funded by a grant from USA Football, began two years ago with Irmo/Friarsgate Pop Warner and Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission leagues. It expanded this year to leagues in Lexington and White Knoll, thanks to a larger USA Football grant and a donation from the Marcus Lattimore Foundation.

The leagues enjoy being study subjects.

“The parents feel more secure,” said Jay Kirby, president of the Lexington Youth Football and Cheerleading Association. “They feel the kids are being watched over better.”

During a practice at Lexington’s Ball Park Road facility last week, 11-year-old Reagan Blackwell smashed his shoulder into the ground while making a tackle. Reagan sheepishly walked up to the athletic training tent, holding his left arm motionless against his body in a tell-tale sign of a shoulder injury.

“So you just really like me, that’s why you keep coming back?” asked Jensen, who quickly has become the most popular person at the Ball Park Road facilities this August.

Reagan’s parents, Les and Tina Blackwell, laughed at the comment. They are big fans of Jensen, who earlier had diagnosed their son’s aching heels as a problem with his style of cleats.

“I’m very impressed,” Les Blackwell said. “She is very well-trained. Every time anybody on the team has something that’s hurt, they can immediately get it checked out. … One boy had a concussion (earlier in the week). I’m not sure any of the parents would have picked up on it.”

Watching the steady stream of players to Jensen’s training table makes the depth of the need clear. Without the athletic trainers, parents and coaches have to make the initial decisions about injury treatments. They usually don’t have the background to make those choices.

“The key is to know the ones that need to go to the emergency room, the ones that need to get back out there, and the ones that need to take a little time off,” Mensch said. “It’s triage.”

The USC folks also are benefiting from the effort. The certified athletic trainer students get more experience dealing with athletes. Meanwhile, researchers are gathering information on the numbers and types of injuries, as well as specific information from 60 high-tech accelerometers that measure the force of collisions.

The accelerometers, which were used for the first time last year, are stuck behind selected players’ ears before each practice or game. They measure the power and direction of collisions, and the data is downloaded into a computer after each practice or game. Mensch said there haven’t been enough similar studies at the high school, college or pro levels yet to make good comparisons, but the USC accelerometer study is adding to the small data set.

Another component of last year’s study involved measuring the hydration of players before and after practices or games. The findings were consistent with other youth sports studies, said Susan Yeargin, the USC professor who coordinated the work.

“The vast majority showed up dehydrated, not significantly but mildly to moderately dehydrated,” Yeargin said.

While the players did a good job of hydrating during practice and games, with water provided on the field or water bottles brought from home, they also sweated enough while they played that they never got completely hydrated. “They were staying in a chronic dehydration state,” Yeargin said.

Parents shouldn’t feel terribly guilty about that. A high percentage of professional athletes show up at practices dehydrated, according to some studies. The important take-away from the hydration study is for young athletes to take in more, and the right, fluids during the day. Sugary, caffeinated drinks – bad. Water – good.

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