Update: Head Injuries Remain a Major Concern for Football Players

Head injuries in athletes resulting in concussions occur more frequently than previously thought. We are learning more about the problem and the important consequences.

Each year more than 300,000 athletes in the U.S. suffer some form of traumatic brain injury. High school athletes comprise 60,000 of these injuries. The consequences vary a great deal, occurring both emotionally and intellectually.

Traumatic brain injury can result in short term symptoms as well as problems that are more serious and may not surface until several years later. What kind of problems develop depend on what portion of the brain is affected, the severity of the blow, the number of repeated blows to the head, preexisting conditions of the individual, and personality traits of the injured person.

The more blows to the head that occur – even small ones – increase the risk for mental deficiencies. Significant head trauma to a football player occurs hundreds of times a week during practice and games. Exploring options for protective equipment in contact sports and teaching fundamental techniques in sports that can reduce head trauma are paramount to reducing the number of injuries and the serious consequences.

A study in 2000 surveyed 1,090 former NFL players and found more than sixty percent had suffered at least one concussion in their careers. Twenty six percent had three or more. The survey revealed that players who had concussions reported more problems with memory, concentration, speech impediments, headaches, and other neurological problems than those who had not. Because these professional players had spent many prior years playing football in high school and college, the frequency of head trauma is likely under-reported. Head trauma is a problem for many of the non-contact sports as well.

Other common medical problems are being discovered as we examine concussions more closely. Depression, insomnia, attention deficit and personality changes all occur with similar frequency among high school athletes. These kinds of problems have been found to be more frequent in those who have had even one episode of head trauma.

Long-term problems may take eight years or more to develop or worsen. Immediate symptoms that require removal from sports activities include amnesia, poor balance, headaches, dizziness, or other neurologic deficits, regardless of how quickly they subside on the sidelines. It is widely accepted that concussion symptoms can reappear hours or days after the injury, indicating that the player had not healed properly from the initial blow. This requires strict guidelines that conservatively allow adequate time for healing to occur.

But the question remains – how much healing time is enough? A health care provider should be involved in examining and investigating these head injuries to ensure the best outcome. Even one episode of head trauma makes the athlete more vulnerable to serious consequences for the next episode, which in many contact sports is inevitable.

Both professional and college sports authorities are changing their recommendations regarding contact sports. One recommendation is reducing the numerous head blows by enforcing practices that involve no contact. Research has shown the number of head blows during a college football season totals in the thousands for an individual player. Many football collisions have forces comparable to driving a car into a concrete wall at 40 miles per hour.

Teaching better techniques to reduce the head leading contact in tackling and blocking and providing better equipment can help reduce the negative effects. Football helmet manufacturing and testing are not closely regulated. New helmet technology and better monitoring of equipment after repeated impact can reduce the consequences of head impact.

Repeated head trauma resulting in serious consequences of traumatic brain injury should be no surprise. We can do more to protect athletes of all ages. Athletes themselves should be encouraged to seek medical attention for head injures – even if they seem mild and there is no loss of consciousness. Severity of symptoms and initial imaging studies can detect serious problems early, and be the basis for ongoing treatment and peace of mind.

Dr. Bruce Kaler


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