For over 10 years now, our kids have been encouraged to “unleash the beast” because their favorite energy drink will “give you wings.” Along with their slogans, these beverage companies have sponsored and promoted the meteoric rise of action sports competitions around the world, not to mention free-fall jumps from outer space. They’ve created a culture and attitude fueled by lots of caffeine and sugar.
For many kids, this has been the shot of courage and individuality that they were waiting for outside of the traditional sports scene. But this bold, adventure-seeking life has also raised the risk of injury as the promise of “wings” has not always agreed with the law of gravity.
In fact, researchers at the University of Toronto recently found that teenagers who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the last 12 months were an astounding seven times more likely to drink at least five energy drinks per week than teens who had not had a serious head injury. Even more sobering was that kids with a reported TBI were twice as likely to have mixed an energy drink with alcohol than those that had no similar injury.
While once thought to be just a fad, the energy drink industry shows no signs of slowing down. While carbonated soda sales are flat, energy drinks keep flying high with sales up 11% last month over the previous year. Back in 1999, the world market for energy drinks was worth $3.8 billion but has since exploded to $27.5 billion in 2013.
Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, led a research team to find any correlation between serious head injuries and energy drink consumption. No one had yet put the two together for analysis. He was surprised by the findings.
“We’ve found a link between increased brain injuries and the consumption of energy drinks or energy drinks mixed with alcohol,” said Dr. Cusimano. “This is significant because energy drinks have previously been associated with general injuries, but not specifically with TBI.”
The data for the study came from a huge survey from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health of over 10,000 students between the ages of 11 and 20, known as the 2013 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. The kids took the anonymous survey in their classrooms and were told that a TBI was a head injury that caused them to lose consciousness for at least five minutes or be hospitalized for at least one night. Overall, 22.4% of the students reported at least one TBI.
The startling finding was the direct correlation between energy drinks and TBIs. The results did not say that kids were necessarily drinking at the time of their injury, just that those who regularly drank energy drinks were seven times more likely to also report a TBI than those who stayed away from those drinks.
The research has been published in PLOS ONE.
“It is particularly concerning to see that teens who report a recent TBI are also twice as likely to report consuming energy drinks mixed with alcohol,” said Dr. Robert Mann, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and also part of the research team. “While we cannot say this link is causal, it’s a behaviour that could cause further injury and so we should be looking at this relationship closely in future research.”
As the researchers concluded, they’re not sure what to make of this relationship but it was so overwhelming that they needed to report it and then design more research to find out more. Is it the caffeine boost that makes kids feel invincible or the fact that their favorite action sports hero promotes it or a combination of both? For now, it’s just something for parents to keep their eye on.
By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap’s Sports Science Expert