The nation’s largest group of pediatricians on Monday urged its members to “vigorously oppose boxing for any child or adolescent.”
In a statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said thousands of boys and girls participate in the sport in North America, despite risks of serious brain and facial injuries.
The group’s position mirrors the stance at many other medical organizations and was applauded by some experts.
“There is very little one can reasonably do in order to increase the chance of having a healthy brain when you get old,” said Dr. Hans Forstl at the Technische Universitat Munchen in Munich, who has studied boxing injuries.
“One of the best things you can do is avoid boxing,” he told Reuters Health.
The new move met with fierce resistance from the boxing community. Pat Russo, a retired police officer who runs a boxing gym in Brooklyn, New York, said the sport has helped thousands of kids in poor neighborhoods find direction in life.
“Boxing has been a kind of penicillin for these kids, it has been saving these kids,” he told Reuters Health. “It teaches them discipline and a work ethic that if you do something and you practice every day, you are going to get better at it.”
According to the new statement, published in the journal Pediatrics, data from Canada show a rise in boxing injuries over the past decade. From 1999 to 2007, the injury rate jumped from 11 to 16 per 100,000 kids, with most of the damage done during sparring or competitions.
One study cited in the statement estimated that for every 1,000 hours of amateur boxing, there would be one injury — which is lower than the rates in football, wrestling and soccer.
Concussions are the biggest concern, ranging from six to 52 percent of all injuries, depending on which study you look at.
“Boxing is one of the very few sports which really aim at hurting the opponent and for a short period of time achieving loss of consciousness,” said Forstl. “A knockout is basically a cerebral concussion.”
Immediately after a bout, he added, boxers have increased production of beta amyloid, a compound found in excess in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
“The typical brain of a boxer with a long career shows severe changes,” Forstl said.
As many as one in five professional boxers may end up with so-called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury also known as dementia pugilistica, according to the AAP. However, the groups acknowledges in its statement that that statistic is based on older data, and that boxing has become safer since.
Russo, who directs the Atlas NYC Cops & Kids Boxing Club, said injuries are rare in amateur boxing. After 26 years and training thousands of kids, he’s seen just one split lip among his students.
“If the gym is run properly, injuries are at an absolute minimum,” Russo said. “Football is ten times more dangerous.”
Recently, one of his students made it onto the U.S. Olympic team, but he said he’s just as proud of another kid who went on to become a cop.
While tennis or football might also help kids gain confidence, Russo said, boxing holds a special attraction for youngsters in poor neighborhoods, because it allows them to act tough while staying out of trouble.
The AAP did not respond to requests for comment.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, said AAP’s stance makes sense for upper- and middle-class kids.
“Clearly boxing is safer today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it is still a very risky activity,” he told Reuters Health.
For kids in poor areas, however, the situation is different, said Cantu, who has written a book about boxing and medicine.
“The most dangerous thing for the majority of people in boxing is just where they live,” he explained. “They are far safer in the ring, even taking blows to the head, than they are out in the neighborhood.”