It’s fall and, after school, every field in my town is full of kids — peewee to high school varsity — suited up in helmets and pads to play football. When my now-15-year-old son Charlie was younger, I used to feel a pang as we passed those practices. Charlie, a runner with a powerful stride, is autistic and any kind of organized teams sports are out of the question. Would he have wanted to play football, had things been different?
New studies about the effects of concussions on children and their developing brains as well as reports about former NFL players who have committed suicide — Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and the San Diego Chargers’ Junior Seau both shot themselves in the chest — are giving parents pause about allowing a child to play football.
Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner has said that it’s a “scary thing” that his two school-age sons are playing the sport, says USA Today. In the New York Times, one mother, Crystal McCrary says that she and her ex-husband, former NBA player Greg Anthony, will not allow their 12-year-old son to play the sport, however much coaches enthuse about his abilities. Five facts that parents like McCrary are weighing:
1) When a child takes a hit to the head in football, the impact can be as bad as that in a car accident.
Stefan Duma, the head of the biomedical engineering department at Virginia Tech, led a research study in which sensors were placed inside the helmets of seven boys aged 6 to 8 years old during their 2011 football season. Most of the impacts were “too inconsequential to record,” but he also found that
Results showed that about 95 percent of the impacts were between 15 and 20 g’s — what Duma likened to an “aggressive pillow fight.” The other 5 percent spiked to 50 to 100 g’s — what Duma characterized as a “car accident.”
Duma noted that collegiate and professional football players had a low risk for concussions at 100 g’s. But research has shown that the damage from concussions can be cumulative, and that the brains of younger athletes may be particularly susceptible.
This fall, Duma will be part of a joint research project with Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to evaluate about 300 football players ages 6 to 13, says the New York Times. Duma underscores the need for more studies with many participants, noting that it is not easy to get statistics about concussions due to underreporting about how often, and how serious, these are.
2) Kids who take a blow to the head can have problems a year later.
A March 2012 study in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine found that a small group of students who suffer concussions had problems with memory and attention in the two weeks and even twelve months afterwards. Specifically, children experienced headaches, fatigue, forgetfulness and inattentiveness.
Time Magazine also points out that 20 percent of children who were knocked out and lost consciousness experience forgetfulness and fatigue.
3) The long-term damage caused by concussions remains unknown.
A recently published Neurology of 3,439 retired pro football players found that they are three to four times more likely to die from brain diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Chicago neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, chairman of the medical advisory board for the Pop Warner youth football organization, has studied the brains of former NFL players who had depression and dementia and found a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in four of them. USA Today notes that researchers made similar findings in the brain of Duerson, the Bears player who killed himself.
4) It’s questionable how much protection helmets offer.
It’s possible that better helmets with more padding might offer more protection; Virginia Tech researchers provide detailed rankings of ten different football helmets.
But another study has found that while some popular helmets provided protection for linear impacts (which cause bruising and skull fracture), they provided “little or no protection against angular acceleration, a dangerous source of brain injury and encephalopathy.”
That is, helmets are optimized to protect players from bruising but not from the additional trauma from a concussion after “the brain keeps moving [and at a fast rate] until it collides with the inside of the skull,”as Kevin Cook (author of The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s — the Era That Created Modern Sports) writes in the New York Times.
As Time magazine put it, “no magic football helmet can prevent players from sustaining concussions.”
5) Former pro football players are suing the NFL over the dangers of concussions.
Over 3,000 have sued the NFL on the grounds that they were not informed of the dangers of concussions, that the league failed to protect them and that it should provide them with medical care.
Cook notes that the NFL tests players using written or computerized cognitive tests to assess concussions at the start of each season:
… players are shown a page featuring 20 words and asked to write down as many as they remember when the page is taken away. The same with 20 simple pictures: Draw as many as you can remember. Later, after an on-field hammering rings their mental bells, the pros take the same test. Match your baseline results or sit out.
Some players cheat. They purposely give wrong answers on the preseason baseline test in hopes of passing the test when they’re concussed. But no screening plan is foolproof, and this one has the virtue of simplicity. Every college and high school football program should use such a test until we find something better.
Should not such tests be administered more frequently? For children who play football, could teachers be trained to look for warning signs of brain injury in students who play football?
Protecting the Brains of Young Football Players
For reasons other than a concussion during a football game, we have had to take Charlie to the emergency room for head trauma and I can tell you that, as a parent, it is very scary to know that your child has a potentially serious brain injury with possible lifelong consequences.
It’s a very good thing that more than 30 states now have laws under which schools or leagues cannot allow those who have suffered a concussion on school grounds to play without medical clearance. Washington state first passed such a law, the Zackery Lystedt Law, in 2006, after 13-year-old Lystedt suffered a concussion in a middle school game, went back to play and collapsed; he suffered brain damage extensive enough that he required surgery and, at his high school graduation, could only walk a few steps.
The Pop Warner youth football organization is also limiting how many full-speed collisions and other contact players can be allowed in practice.
But whether such changes will be enough to assuage parents worried about their children’s heads and future remains to be seen.
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