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Could Sleep Issues Put Young Athletes at Greater Risk for a Concussion?

Your young athlete works hard in school and plays hard on the field, but are they getting enough sleep? While all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, all work and no sleep may put your child at risk for a concussion or serious injury.

Sleep is crucial, especially for growing teens and young adults, but with crazy school, social and sports schedules, for many, sleep is at the bottom of their priority list.

Studies have shown that insufficient sleep among youth poses a serious risk to their physical and emotional health, academic success and safety. Some research has also shown how prior traumatic brain injuries and concussions can put athletes at greater risk for sleep issues. But new research out of the University of Arizona highlights that sleep issues may also put athletes at greater risk for concussions as well.

“With lack of sleep or poor quality sleep, you could see degraded sports performance and athletes taking risks, such as going up for headers even if they know they won’t get it,” said Ian Crain, MD, with Banner Brain & Spine and a sports neurologist who specializes in traumatic brain injuries and concussions. “Poor decisions, such as lowering your head in the wrong direction or miscalculating a ball, could really get someone hurt. They could lead to head to head impact with someone else or a goal post, leading to a concussion or injury.”

To better understand whether your child is at potential risk, Dr. Crain highlights some key points from the research study and provides tips to help young athletes improve their sleep or get necessary help for sleep issues.

Key highlights from the research study:

  • For those athletes in the study who reported a concussion prior to the survey date, daytime sleepiness on two or more days in a month or moderate-to-severe levels of insomnia, were 2 to 3 times more likely to have a concussion out of any of these athletes in high-risk sports (such as football, basketball and soccer).
  • Taking away high-risk sports and focusing on all athletics, the odds of a future sports-related concussion were 3.5 to 5.5 times higher if the athlete reported moderate-to-severe insomnia and/or daytime sleepiness on two or more days per month.
  • Collectively, the odds of sustaining a sports-related concussion for athletes who reported both moderate-to-severe insomnia and two or more days of daytime sleepiness were 14.6 times higher than those who reported neither.

“The researchers noted in the study that if you have history of a sports-related concussion, you often have sleep abnormalities, nighttime awakenings and daytime sleepiness,” Dr. Crain said. “A lot of athletes may have sleep issues and may not recognize that a prior concussion is a part of it. This can go on for years. This can put them at greater risk for another. That’s why we need to recognize this relationship and take appropriate action to ensure athletes are getting good sleep and are being treated appropriately for any sports-related concussions.”

Tips to help young athletes improve their sleep at night:

  • Get quality sleep. Teenagers, ages 14 to 17, should get between 8 to 10 hours of sleep; young adults, ages 18 to 25, should get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Studies have shown that athletes who get more than 8 hours of sleep during the week reduce the odds of injury. One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day—even on the weekends. The weekends aren’t meant to play catch up.
  • Avoid training and competitions too early or too late. While you might not always have control over this, it can affect quality and quantity of sleep, especially if your schedule is inconsistent.
  • Watch for sleep issues, such as waking with a headache in the morning, daytime sleepiness, napping and difficulty falling and staying asleep at night. These could be signs that your sleep is being affected.
  • Keep the bed for sleeping. Resist the urge to watch TV or do homework on the bed, so your body comes to only associate the bed with sleep.
  • Eat right. A healthy, balanced diet will help you sleep. Avoid sugary drinks and simple carbohydrates like chips and cookies.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks at least 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
  • Create a sleep ritual. You can develop your own ritual to remind your body it’s time for sleep. This include shutting down all electronics well before bedtime and listening to calming music.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet and comfortable. A darker, cooler room with enough blankets to stay warm is best.

For persistent sleep issues

If sleep issues persist for more than a couple of weeks, you may want to consider:

  • Talking to your coach about the practice schedule to see if modifying it can help with your sleep.
  • Limiting sports to summertime or not participating on a travel team. If athletics are having a negative impact on sleep and school performance, you may want to seriously consider limiting sports to the summertime when school is out or not participating on a travel team that includes late nights and many weekends away.
  • Speaking with a family doctor or sleep specialist. It can be hard to determine the cause for sleep problems. Talk to a family doctor or someone who specializes in sleep issues. A sleep specialist has the expertise to find the source of sleep problems and knows what is needed to get necessary sleep. You can also take our free sleep assessmentto help determine your risk for sleep apnea. 
  • Trying cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. CBT-I can help identify and replace thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote better sleep. Unlike the short-term benefits of sleep medications, CBT-I can help you overcome the underlying causes of your sleep issues.

For additional tips to catch more zzz’s and improve overall sleep, check out these posts:

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