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In recent years we’ve learned so much more than ever before about sports injuries, and especially the effects of these injuries in children. 

While deaths from sports injuries are rare, more than 3.5 million children under the age of 14 are injured in recreational sports each year. 

Sports injuries are the second-leading cause of emergency room visits for children and adolescents and the second-leading cause of injuries at school. Around three million children go to hospital emergency rooms each year for sports-related injuries. There may be many other injuries not seen in a hospital or clinical setting. 

We frequently think about head injuries and concussions as being the biggest risk of youth sports, but there are other injury risks as well.

For example, ankle sprains are among the most common sports injuries. Knee issues are another as are muscle strains, and fractures of the fingers and wrists. 

ACL tears are common and very painful, and if your child tears their ACL, which is a ligament that stabilizes their knee, they are very likely to require surgery. 

Contact sports can be the most dangerous for people of all ages, and that has led many parents to become concerned about the effects of letting their children play football.

For example, a 2015 survey found that 25% of parents don’t let their children play contact sports because of the fear of concussions.

A separate report from the Aspen Institute found that participation in tackle football among children between the ages of 6 and 12 went down 12% between 2016 and 2017. 

There’s disagreement about whether or not football is too dangerous for children, but ultimately, it’s a decision that only you as a parent can make. 

What Are the Risks of Contact Sports Including Football?

The biggest concerns that most people have about football and contact sports are the risk of traumatic brain injuries. For example, being hit in the head when playing youth sports can up the chances of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. 

CTE is not treatable, and it a degenerative brain disease. Symptoms of CTE can include memory loss or more severe progressive dementia.

The longer someone plays football, the higher the risk they will develop CTE symptoms. 

However, football isn’t the only activity that can cause cognitive decline later in life. There have been some studies looking at retired professional football players that found no link between the number of concussions they experienced and cognitive decline later. 

On the other hand, the Radiological Society of North America looked at brain changes in youth and high school foot players by adding sensors to their helmets. The study found a significant reduction in gray matter pruning, which is a process that helps the brain become more efficient. 

Another study that was published in Neurobiology of Disease found that in players with no evidence of concussion, even after just one season of playing, they had small changes in the gray matter of their brain. 

The Pros and Cons of Letting Your Child Play Football

If you’re trying to decide whether to let your child play football, there are both upsides and downsides to be aware of.

First, childhood obesity is one of the biggest problems in our country currently, with more than one-third of kids being classified as overweight or obese. Not getting enough exercise is one of the main reasons for this troubling trend, and if a child wants to play football, then it’s one way to get them moving and invested in physical activity.

Plus, an active child is more likely to grow into an adult who’s active and values health and fitness. 

Kids who play any kind of sports tend to perform better academically, and being involved in organized sports helps kids learn valuable lessons such as teamwork and how to manage their disappointments and frustrations. 

Of course, you have to measure these pros with some cons. 

For example, football players are as has been touched on at high risk for concussions and other sports-related injuries. 

Concussions and other head injuries can have long-term effects on cognition and brain function.

As a parent, most of the decisions you make for your child are probably based on balancing the risks with the benefits. 

It’s impossible to protect your children from every risk, and even common activities like bicycling have risks. In fact, bicycling sends more kids to the emergency room with head injuries than football. 

As a parent, rather than trying to completely shield your child from risks, you should be proactive in helping them find strategies to reduce these risks. If your child does decide to play football, you should also make sure you know the warning signs and risks of head injuries. 

Tips for Keeping Your Child Safe

The following are some tips to keep in mind if your child is going to play football or even other recreational sports. 

  • Some professionals recommend not letting your child play flag football until they are at least 14 years old because by that time puberty should have strengthened the neck enough so it can keep the brain from rattling if they are slammed to the ground. 
  • Ask the coach or league director what steps they’re taking to improve safety. Do the coaches or school officials focus on proper tackling? If there is a safety concern, will a player be removed? You want to ensure your child is playing for a team that takes the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations seriously. 
  • Coaches should always allow time for rest, and they should be trained in identifying signs and symptoms of concussions. 
  • Coaches are encouraged to promote heads up playing, which means not leading with the head and not spearing, which means hitting another player with the crown of the head. 

There’s no one right answer to whether or not you should let your child play football.

It’s a decision you have to inform yourself of and make as a parent and if your child does play football, work to reduce the potential risks.