Adolescent football: Not as safe as you may think
Concussions have been in the limelight recently due to the deaths of high profile professional athletes who experienced repeated hits to their head. This information has created heightened attention for prevention, diagnosis and treatment for concussions in children and adolescents participating in sports. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 173,285 patients 19 years and younger are treated in the emergency room each years for sports and recreational traumatic brain injuries, which includes concussions. This number has increased by 60% in the past decade among those playing football, soccer, hockey and other contact sports.
Even though professional football has been the most researched group of professional athletes when it comes to brain changes from hits to the head, they are a very small subset of people who play football overall. Seventy percent of football players are adolescents, so for every professional player in the NFL there are 2,000 high school players.
Researchers at Wake Forest University have found that significant brain changes can occur in high school football players in a single season, and even if the athlete didn’t suffer an obvious concussion. Because this is such an understudied population, the researchers used helmet-mounted accelerometers to measure the number, severity, g-force, and acceleration of each player’s impacts in games, as well as in practices. The number of hits multiplied by the risk of concussion was used to calculate each player’s risk-weighted exposure.
Diffusion tensor imaging, which is done with an MRI, was used pre and post season to detect these changes in the brain. This data was used to separate the athletes into two groups, heavy and light hitters. The heavy hitters were at the top 25 percentile and showed the most brain changes. The light hitters were in the lower 25 percentile and had less brain changes at the end of the season. Changes were shown in the brain, but none of the players were experiencing any common symptoms of a concussion. This point cannot be over-emphasized. Injury to the brain occurred in these young athletes without them experiencing symptoms of a concussion.
Researchers plan to study how the presence of athletic trainers and sports medicine physicians change the identification and treatment of concussion at games and practices. NFL teams and some high schools have these individuals on the sidelines during games, but most youth teams do not. Laws regarding concussions in sports have been passed in many states, but once again these are mostly used at the high school level. The adherence to the rules and laws is much less consistent in youth leagues. Moreover, studies of head hits in youth football reveal that two-thirds of hits happened during practices, not during games. In contrast, 56% of hits were in practices for high school players. These researchers are looking for a way to increase safety in football not only through equipment, but through rule changes, better diagnosis, and better treatment.
If you, or someone you know, have experienced a head injury from sports, motor vehicle accident, service in the military, or another incident and would like more information regarding changes to the brain or treatment, please contact us.