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A new study shows 1 in 5 middle- and high-school students in Ontario report they have suffered at least one head injury that knocked them unconscious for more than five minutes or required overnight hospitalization.

The study's authors say that suggests traumatic head injuries are far more common among young people than previous statistics indicated, likely because many incidents go unreported.

The paper, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, looks at the prevalence of such injuries among the province's public school students in grades 7 through 12, as well as the circumstances surrounding them.

Researchers at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital analyzed data from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's 2011 survey on drug use and health, which was filled out by close to 9,000 Ontario students aged 11 to 20.

They found that roughly 5 per cent of students reported having a traumatic brain injury in the past year – and more than half those cases (56 per cent) were sports-related.

There was also a link with alcohol and cannabis, with frequent users showing "significantly higher odds" of a head injury in the past year than their tee-totalling peers.

Boys were more likely than girls to report having experienced a head injury in the past year þ 6.9 per cent compared with 4.3 per cent, according to the study.

Head injuries more than a year old were also linked to poorer grades in the present, said co-author Gabriela Ilie, a neuropsychologist.

"There is a relationship, but that relationship is important when we keep in mind that traumatic brain injuries are preventable," she said Tuesday.

The latest figures from Statistics Canada showed 2.7 per cent of teens aged 12 to 19 had suffered a head injury in 2009 and 2010, though the agency didn't specify how serious those injuries were.

Ilie said everybody, from parents and teachers to teens themselves, has to take action to keep young people from getting hurt – and ensure they get proper treatment when they do.

"There are issues related to equipment, there are issues related to rules and regulations that can be addressed," she said.

"But there are also things that we can do as a community in terms of our perception of brain injury … to treat it with the same amount of respect and care and consideration that an injury to the arm or an injury to the leg is addressed."

She alluded to young athletes sent back into play a day after being knocked out, saying that would be unfathomable with a more visible ailment.

"If that same child had a broken arm, you wouldn't say he's fine. You wouldn't send a child with a broken arm into the rink, would you?"

Ilie said more research is needed to examine the long-term outcomes of head injuries and possible links with other drugs, including prescription medicines.

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