Parents who may be having second thoughts about allowing their children to strap on a helmet or score a touchdown may get some comfort from a new policy statement on youth football injuries from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In its statement, the AAP outlined a series of recommendations to improve children's safety while participating in youth football leagues, such as USA Football and Pop Warner. The policy does not apply to high school- and college-age players, the pediatricians group noted.

These new gridiron guidelines call for coaches to teach young athletes proper tackling techniques as well as ways to safely absorb tackles, and they call for officials and coaches to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal, head-first hits.

Other recommendations include an expansion of non-tackling football, such as flag football leagues, for youngsters who are looking for a lower-risk option to play the game. In addition, they encourage the presence of athletic trainers on the sidelines to monitor players' safety during games and practices and teach them neck-strengthening exercises, which may help prevent injuries

The majority of studies have shown that the injury rate for youth football is quite low, and is actually significantly lower than the injury rates of high school or college football, said Dr. Gregory Landry, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, and the lead author of the policy statement. [9 Weird Ways Kids Can Get Hurt]

The researchers will present their findings today (Oct. 25) at the AAP's yearly national meeting in Washington, D.C. The policy statement will also be available online in the journal Pediatrics. 

Concussion fears

There is a growing concern among some physicians about the injuries that children sustain during football, especially to the head and neck.

Rising fears about concussions and the cumulative long-term effects of repeated hits to the head as a possible cause of dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a devastating brain condition observed in former professional football players, may be partly to blame for declining participation rates in youth football leagues in the United States.

In addition, worries about football's potential danger to the developing brains of young athletes, as well as the violent nature of the sport have prompted some parents to not allow their child to play the game.

Amid these injury concerns, some groups have been calling for reducing the number of football practices that involve physical contact, and postponing tackling until children reach a certain age. To determine whether these proposed changes might make the youth game safer, sports medicine experts from the AAP reviewed the medical literature on injury risk.

The findings suggest not only that the overall injury rate in youth football is relatively low, but also that the injuries seen in football's youngest players usually involve bruises, sprains, strains and fractures to the arms and legs. Catastrophic brain or neck injuries are rare, Landry said.

Injury rates in high school and college football are higher because those players are bigger, faster, stronger and generate more force, Landry told Live Science.

But rather than suggesting that the teaching of safe tackling techniques be postponed until kids get older, the policy statement recommends that children be taught proper tackling techniques by their coaches at the earliest organized level of football. Delaying learning these skills may increase the number and severity of injuries because players may not be prepared to learn them best if they are first introduced at an older age, the paper suggests. 

When parents ask Landry if they should let their child play football, he tells them that children tend to want to play the sports their friends play, and the ones they're good at.

There is a lot to be gained from children playing a team sport, such as learning to work toward a common goal, how to get along with others and doing some form of exercise, Landry said. These benefits need to be weighed against the risks.

Injuries, concussions and fractures happen in youth football, but most don't result in deformity or long-term disabilities, and brain and catastrophic injuries are very rare, Landry said.

"There is no such thing as zero risk," Landry reminds parents. However, children at this age are more likely to suffer an injury in an automobile accident or on a bicycle than in youth football, he said.  

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