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Is Tackle Football Safe for Younger Kids?

Is Tackle Football Safe for Younger Kids?

Two weeks ago one of the moms in my office told me her 8 year old son wanted to play Pop Warner Football. She wanted to know if I thought it was safe for boys his age. As a former Pop Warner and high school football player myself, I had to admit that I could not be very impartial on the subject of the sport. I told her that football was a great sport! It takes strength, stamina, courage, hard work, pride, heart and it teaches commitment, teamwork and perseverance. Oh yea, and if you’re worried about injuries, it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”. It’s just the extent that’s the question.

My dad played football, my younger brother played football and I did too. Each of us sustained at least one serious injury. My dad broke his leg in his senior year. My brother blew out his ACL in training prior to his senior year when he’d already been scouted by USC and lost any chance of a full ride scholarship. I broke my thumb my sophomore year (it still pops to this day every time I bend it). Even so, my 17 year old son is played his first year of football as a sophomore on the JV team at Elsinore High and I couldn’t have been prouder. My 10 year old son played his first year of Pop Warner last year and I was an assistant coach for his team!

In this month’s column I intend to present the facts on football injuries and give some advice on how to treat your player when the “not-so-serious” injuries occur on the field.

First some facts.
​The injury rate in Pop Warner Football is:
• less than one third the injury rate in high school football.
• less than one fifth the injury rate in college football.
• less than one ninth the injury rate in professional football.
• Pop Warner’s age weight schematic protects younger, lighter players who do not have higher injury rates.
• organized football among 5-15 year olds has
o 12% fewer injuries than organized soccer in the same age range.
o 50% fewer injuries than bicycle riding in the same age range.
o 74% fewer injuries than skateboarding in the same age group.
• Injuries in youth football are normally mild, and older players have a higher injury rate than younger players.

The Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in New York completed a Pop Warner injury survey in 1998. The study included data from over 5000 players from 8-15 years of age and weighing 50-150 pounds. The study revealed an overall rate of significant injury of 5%. 61% of those injuries were classified as moderate and 38.9% were classified as major injuries. No catastrophic injuries occurred and it was rare for a permanent disability to result from an injury.

The study’s authors said the risk increases with level of play and player age. Older players in the higher grades are more susceptible to football injuries. The risk of injury for an eighth grade player was 4 times greater than the risk of injury for a fourth grader. Contributing factors include increased size, strength, speed and aggressiveness.

After reviewing the study results above, it’s interesting to look back at the injuries within my own family that I mentioned earlier. All three of us played Pop Warner and high school football. The injuries all occurred while in high school and none occurred to me or my family members while playing Pop Warner. So what kinds of injuries do occur to the younger players?

By far the most common injury I evaluated on the field last year was a contusion. A contusion is blunt force trauma introduced to the soft tissue of the body. Usually swelling and bruising is the result. Contusions can be easily managed by following the RICE formula:
​Rest – stop the activity that brought on the condition.
​Ice – apply ice through one layer of towel to the area for 20 minutes.
​Compression – lightly wrap the area with a soft bandage or elastic wrap.
​Elevate – raise the injured area above the level of the heart.

The same formula applies for treatment of other common injuries experienced by the younger and older players alike that include sprains and strains. A sprain is a ligament injury while a strain is a muscle injury. Both are graded I-III. Grade I implies that the tissue has been overstretched. Grade II is a partial tear of the tissue and grade III is a complete tear requiring a surgical correction.

My general rule of thumb is the “3 day rule”. If an athlete’s injury causes pain or limited mobility beyond 3 days, then it’s time to consult a professional for evaluation and proper management of the condition. Fractures and ligament injuries such as those mentioned earlier clearly need to be evaluated and treated by an orthopedic specialist, however, doctors of chiropractic are ideally positioned to evaluate and treat the less serious but far more frequent sprains, strains and other various joint injuries.

So do I think it’s safe for younger kids to play tackle football? Absolutely! In fact the evidence indicates that the younger the players are, the less chance of significant injury. So make sure the kids stretch and warm up properly, teach the essentials of safe tackling (don’t lead with the head!) and let them go have some fun!

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