Misleading Data Answers Nothing About Youth Concussions

It turns out that advocacy groups, no matter what side of the issue they're on, don't always present their numbers in the most honest way

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Jul 13, 2016 at 1:36 PM ET

According to a recent study from the non-profit advocacy group FAIR Health, concussion diagnoses spiked between 2010 and 2014, to the tune of a 500 percent increase.

Five. Hundred. Percent!

It’s a crisis, an epidemic, even! Our sweet, precious babies’ minds are being pounded into a substance with the consistency and cognitive capacity of guacamole. We must ban all sports immediately and seal every precious youth in a hyperbaric chamber or at least encase their skulls in bubble wrap until they’re ready to enter the adult world.

Or we could look at this study for what it is: alarmist, and at best, misleading bunk.

There’s no doubting the raw totals that FAIR Health culled from the more than 20 billion privately billed claims that reside in their database, but whether the “five hundred percent” represents an actual increase in the number of concussions that were incurred is a colossal unknown.

As FAIR’s president, Robin Gelburd states outright in a blog at the Huffington Post, “that highly significant increase can likely be attributed to increased reporting associated with the wave of state laws regarding youth sports-related concussions enacted since 2009.”

Oh, right. Starting in 2009, all 50 states and the District of Columbia passed legislation covering the protocols that a young athlete must go through before he or she can return to the field. Even so, analysis from the Associated Press showed that many of these laws failed to live up to the gold standard set by Washington state, and “only 34 say that before returning to action, an athlete with a head injury must have written clearance from a licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussions.”

In Gelburd’s blog, he also notes that Massachusetts’ regulations rank as one of the strictest in the nation, and (shocker) they’re “one of the states with the highest incidence of concussion diagnoses.”

And that’s before we take into account that the conversation about traumatic brain injuries in football and across all sports began to ramp up starting in 2007 after Andre Waters’ tragic suicide. It became a national issue because of the nonstop, grim procession of ex-NFL athletes’ post-mortem diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy over the last nine years, which certainly could lead to parents taking their kids to the doctor when they get dinged regardless of the legislative requirements.

But the handy-dandy infographic that FAIR Health distributed—and was dutifully written up by US News & World Report and—doesn’t provide any of that context at all, save for a brief note beneath the map displaying the number of concussion diagnoses across the United States, which says, “Strict mandatory reporting laws in some states likely impact concussion reporting.”

As for the rest of their findings, well, there’s not much new information. Football and ice hockey cause the most diagnosed concussions, boys suffer them at a greater rate than girls, the diagnoses peak during the first two months of football season, and so on. That’s all well and good, but flabby, sensationalistic data likes this does not in any way lead to further answers or even a smidge of clarity when it comes to concussions. We don’t know how many kids are suffering traumatic brain injuries playing sports, or whether any of the measures that have been taken to stem the tide are doing a lick of good, particularly when the NFL continues to try to skew the science, and manufacturers are cranking out dubious, “concussion-proof” protective gear.

Stop with the bad data analysis, FAIR Health. You’re not helping.