By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Many young athletes still do not admit when they have suffered a head injury despite increased awareness about the risks of concussions in children and teenagers, U.S. health advisers said on Wednesday, urging sports leagues and government agencies to take more action.
Various groups have tried to raise awareness about the seriousness of brain injuries, and sports leagues have implemented rule changes aimed at preventing them. Professional leagues, including the National Football League, are also wrestling with the issue amid complaints from some players about long-term impacts on the brain.
But there is still not enough data on how to prevent and treat them, the experts said in an analysis of sports-related concussions in young athletes from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. (Report: http://r.reuters.com/xus34v)
"Despite the increased attention, however, confusion and controversy persist in many areas," panelists said the report, which was sponsored by several government agencies along with $75,000 from the NFL.
Overall, studies show youth concussions occur at higher rates in certain sports, during competition rather than practice and among girls, the 17-member panel concluded.
Most recovery plans call for athletes with concussions to rest, but "current research does not indicate a standard or universal level and duration of rest needed," panelists added.
In 2009, U.S. hospitals treated 250,000 youths for sports-related concussions and other brain injuries, up from 150,000 in 2001, according to the report, which analyzed all available studies and data on 5- to 21-year-olds.
It was unclear if concussions are on the rise or whether increased awareness had prompted more diagnoses, the report added. Reporting differences and other factors may also help explain why data show higher rates among girls, it said.
Still, many cases go unreported.
For Hannah Steenhuysen, a high school soccer goalie in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, it was hard to admit she had been hit too hard with a ball and risk missing out on her favorite sport.
"You don't tell anyone usually when you get a headache because you don't want to be out of the game," she said.
Severe headaches from her second concussion last year took her off the team and left her struggling for months to catch up on assignments.
"I couldn't watch TV or text or even read - it was really tough," said Steenhuysen. "When I tried to go back to school, I couldn't keep up and everything got jumbled in my head."
CURRENT EFFORTS INADEQUATE
Concussions are a mild form of traumatic brain injury that can cause memory problems, headaches, sensitivity to light, among other symptoms. Mood changes are also a worry, and concerns remain about a possible link to mental illness.
The report urged athletic groups and federal health agencies to gather more data overall, calling current efforts "inadequate."
Some parents have already taken steps on their own.
Bill and Suzanne Watters of Oakland, New Jersey, bought their then 14-year-old son a $350 helmet after he suffered a concussion last year during a football game.
They disagree over whether their son should return to the field, but he is playing again this season. "He loves the game, and that's what he wants to do," his mother said.
The report said it "found little evidence" that helmets, mouthguards or headbands reduce the risk of concussion.
While much of the attention has centered around American football with its fierce body blows and tackling, other sports also carry risks. Bicycle crashes were the leading cause of mild brain injuries among youth, data showed.
Overall, more male athletes in high schools and college report concussions in football, ice hockey, lacrosse, wrestling and soccer, the report said.
Among similarly aged young women, the highest rates of reported concussions were in soccer, lacrosse and basketball.
With the exception of cheerleading, head injuries were most likely to occur during competition, not practice, the report said.
For Steenhuysen, soccer is over. The high school senior said she quit playing amid worries about long-term damage, especially as she prepares for college next year.
While her teachers and coaches were supportive, Steenhuysen said some peers were skeptical about her injuries. Even her younger sister, Sarah, had doubts - until she suffered her own concussion at soccer practice a few weeks ago.
"I didn't realize how much it affects, like, everything you do, whether it's car rides or even reading," Sarah, 15, said. "Everything is awful."
But the blow has not derailed her plans to play next year, although she vows to be more careful: "I'm not going to head the ball anymore ... It's not worth it to go through this again."
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh)