High School Athletes Sustaining Worse Injuries

High school students are injuring themselves more severely even as overall injury rates have declined, according to a new study presented at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

The study compared injuries from a 4-year period ending in 2019 to data from 2005 and 2006. The overall rate of injuries dropped 9%, from 2.51 injuries per 1000 athletic games or practices to 2.29 per 1000; injuries requiring less than 1 week of recovery time fell by 13%. But, the number of head and neck injuries increased by 10%, injuries requiring surgery increased by 1%, and injuries leading to medical disqualification jumped by 11%. 

“It’s wonderful that the injury rate is declining,” said Jordan Neoma Pizzarro, a medical student at George Washington University in Washington, DC, who led the study. “But the data does suggest that the injuries that are happening are worse.”

The increases may also reflect increased education and awareness of how to detect concussions and other injuries that need medical attention, said Micah Lissy, MD, MS, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Lissy cautioned against physicians and others taking the data at face value. 

“We need to be implementing preventive measures wherever possible, but I think we can also consider that there may be some confounding factors in the data,” Lissy told Medscape Medical News

Pizzarro and her team analyzed data collected from athletic trainers at 100 high schools across the country for the ongoing National Health School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study.

Athletes participating in sports such as football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, and softball were included in the analysis. Trainers report the number of injuries for every competition and practice, also known as ‘athletic exposures’ (AEs).

Boys’ football carried the highest injury rate, with 3.96 injuries per 1000 AEs, amounting to 44% of all injuries reported. Girls’ soccer and boys’ wrestling followed, with injury rates of 2.65 and 1.56, respectively. 

Sprains and strains accounted for 37% of injuries, followed by concussions (21.6%). The head and/or face was the most injured body site, followed by the ankles and/or knees. Most injuries took place during competitions rather than in practices (relative risk, 3.39; 95% CI, 3.28-3.49; P < .05).

Pizzarro said that an overall increase in intensity, physical contact, and collisions may account for the spike in more severe injuries.

“Kids are encouraged to specialize in one sport early on and stick with it year-round,” she said. “They’re probably becoming more agile and better athletes, but they’re probably also getting more competitive.” 

Lissy, who has worked with high school athletes as a surgeon, physical therapist, athletic trainer, and coach, said that some of the increases in severity of injuries may reflect trends in sports over the past two decades: Student athletes have become stronger and faster and have put on more muscle mass. 

“When you have something that’s much larger, moving much faster and with more force, you’re going to have more force when you bump into things,” he said. “This can lead to more significant injuries.”

The study was independently supported. Study authors report no relevant financial relationships. 

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Presented March 7-8, 2023. Abstract #P0439

Brittany Elyse Vargas is a freelance writer who covers breaking news and medicine.

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