A Twin Cities researcher who found a sharp increase in youth sports concussions reported by Minnesota hospitals has won a five-year federal grant to study whether state sports laws are effective at protecting young athletes.

Dr. Leslie Seymour, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, found last year that the number of children ages 10 to 19 treated in Minnesota hospitals for concussions related to sports and recreation had increased from 808 in 2000 to 1,420 in 2008. Most of the injuries involved boys and teens aged 15 to 19 - though the number of younger children who suffered concussions increased more dramatically over the decade.

More than 30 states, including Minnesota, now have laws that seek to increase awareness among coaches, parents and players about the risks of concussions and to prevent injured players from returning to play until they are fully healed.

Minnesota's law was enacted this summer due to growing public concern and data of the kind presented by Seymour. Seymour will now assess whether the laws in Minnesota and other states make any difference. Four months after Minnesota's law took effect, some doctors and concussion clinics are reporting more patients. Seymour said it is too soon to know whether the law is responsible, but that her federal research project will seek to answer that question.

Seymour said it is significant that the number of concussions sustained in organized sports increased while the number in recreational activities such as bicycling leveled off. The trend could reflect an increase in children participating in organized sports and a decrease in unscheduled recreational activities.

The sports with the most treated concussions were football (130) and hockey (100), followed by soccer (53), basketball (46) and baseball (45), according to Seymour's research.

The key unanswered question is whether the increase in treated concussions reflects more injuries, or whether it reflects greater awareness that has resulted in more injured athletes seeking medical care. An increase in concussions could merely be an outgrowth of an increase in sports activities among children and teens in the state.

Rachel Winthrop of HealthEast's concussion clinic in St. Paul believes parents have grown concerned after Kayla Meyer and other teens told their injury stories. Meyer of New Prague testified to legislative committees this summer about her lingering headaches and other neurological problems following two concussions she suffered playing hockey in 2009.

"Kayla's story, I think it really touched a lot of people and they really got concerned," Winthrop said.

Jeannie Palmer of Northstar EMS, which provides emergency medical technicians at youth football and hockey games in the west metro, agrees that awareness has increased. However, she said that youth sports have become faster and more violent, and that more concussions are a likely consequence.

"The competition gets stronger every year. The players get better," she said. "When the level of play goes up, there's going to be more injuries."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744