Is youth boxing worth the risks?
Youth boxing programs aim to teach children discipline, promote physical fitness and provide them with positive choices, especially in inner cities.
But, those benefits do not outweigh the risks of brain injury, says the national group of pediatricians.
This opinion is not new. As far back as 1984, the American Academy of Pediatrics opposed youth boxing, for similar reasons.
And, since then, studies have increasingly shown that repeated head blows do, in fact, affect brain function and even personality.
In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu linked the erratic behavior and suicides of four retired NFL players to one another after examining their brains post-mortem. He saw that despite being between 36 and 50 years of age, their brains resembled those of Alzheimer’s patients due to the repeated blows.
Since then, the Sports Legacy Institute, in conjunction with Boston University researchers, have found this condition – called chronic traumatic encephalopathy – in over a dozen more athletes in wrestling, hockey and college football.
Yet, long before this condition was brought to light among NFL players, it was recognized and accepted that as many as 40 percent of boxers suffer from chronic brain injury.
Youth boxing thus exposes children to this risk while their brains are still developing and before they have learned appropriate form.
This is also the time where differences in height and weight can vary greatly among the same age group, putting the smaller boxer at greater risk.
The effects are not always as blatant as those highlighted in the news. Studies have shown that players who have had concussions can have deficits in memory, and slower response time to questions. This can lead to attention difficulties and an overall drop in school performance.
I wonder if, in the next decade, researchers will determine that “dumb jocks” are actually a result of undiagnosed brain injury.
The problem with the brain is that we have no way of knowing how any given hit will affect that athlete. Someone hit head-on in football with helmet-to-helmet contact may have less brain damage than someone who is only hit in the shoulders, but has their brain jostled about.
Boxing is more concerning because direct blows to the head and neck are encouraged, round after round.
And, the ultimate achievement, the “knockout” is, medically speaking, a concussion.
A concussion – when an athlete “sees stars,” gets knocked out, or feels foggy after an impact – is actually mild brain injury.
An athlete who has had one concussion is three times more likely to develop a concussion than another athlete with the same type of blow. Young children and teens are more likely to sustain concussions and take longer to recover than adults.
According to Dr. Omalu’s research, those add up. Sometimes, without any symptoms at all.
Even with emergency physicians seeing over 200,000 sports- and recreation-related concussions a year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict which patients will go on to have problems.
Unfortunately, there is no one test or algorithm. A CT scan, or “cat scan,” diagnoses bleeding in the brain and skull fractures. It does not tell us about the person’s brain function.
Despite a normal examination and a normal CT scan, young athletes can still score less on certain neuropsychological testing long after a concussion. And apparently, still go on to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms, erratic behavior and psychological difficulty.
This poses a bigger problem with youth athletics in general.
If there is no way to tell who will develop brain damage, and most athletes appear to be highly-functioning members of society, should we keep youth from playing?
In the era of increasing obesity – particularly in the black community – and a paucity of available physical activity as it is, something seems wrong with further limiting athletic opportunities for risks that don’t affect every athlete.
But, something is definitely wrong about limiting the intellectual ability of a child before they even reach adulthood.