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Boxing KO'd by doctors as too risky for kids' and teens' brains

August 29, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Boxing is too dangerous for kids and teens, pediatrics groups warn.
Boxing is too dangerous for kids and teens, pediatrics groups warn. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Youth boxing is getting pummeled by pediatricians in a new policy statement opposing such pugilism as too dangerous of an athletic activity for children.

The position statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society argues that the high risk of concussion could damage young brains while they're still developing.

"Pediatricians should strongly discourage boxing participation among their patients and guide them toward alternative sport and recreational activities that do not encourage intentional head injuries," coauthors Laura Purcell and Claire LeBlanc, both doctors affiliated with the Canadian Paediatric Society, wrote in the journal Pediatrics.

More than 18,000 children under age 19 were registered with USA Boxing, according to the paper. This may not sound like a huge number when compared with the number of school-age kids involved in sports like football or baseball.

But for disadvantaged youth in particular, the authors point out, boxing often gives kids and teens an appealing alternative to gang-related activity. The sport provides participants with exercise, self-discipline and self-confidence, along with a social environment away from the streets.

"I think that’s an incredibly compelling argument. I think it’s very very tough [to ignore the benefits of boxing]," said Dr. Danelle Fisher, vice chair of pediatrics at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, who was not involved in the paper. "Some of these kids, just by getting them off the street, are so much safer."

"But while you're getting them out of the neighborhood where there are gangs, drugs and other dangers," she added, "you want to make sure you're not also putting them at risk."

Even though other sports, like football or soccer, may have higher overall injury risk, boxing specifically targets the head and torso -- meaning injuries to the head are much more frequent. Repeated concussions, Fisher said, can lead to seizures, dementia and corrupt the brain's information processing abilities.

And as the paper's authors point out, younger brains may be more at risk of damage. 

"The adolescent brain is still a developing organism. There’s even some evidence that the brain continues to develop into the early 20s," Fisher said.

Studies show that high school football and soccer players had more prolonged memory dysfunction than college players, and that high school athletes with a concussion take more than twice as much time for their brains to recover as college athletes.

Fisher also called the idea of training youth to punch others rather than encouraging young people to focus on less violent, teamwork-oriented sports "not so fantastically ideal."

"The bottom line is, boxing is violent," she said.  

The paper recommends that pediatricians steer their patients away from boxing to other sports, like swimming or basketball, and that doctors educate patients, parents and coaches about the medical risks.

As to whether the Pediatrics paper would make a difference, Fisher said, "Hopefully over time we’ll see a decrease in these injuries -- and that's hopefully going to be the proof in the pudding."

Follow me on Twitter at LAT_aminakhan.

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