Keep Your Head Out of the Game

Football traumatic brain injuries and other serious injuries on the rise

(RxWiki News) It may be America's pastime, but many who play football, even in school, may not be able to remember their glory days as they age: head injuries from the game are only getting worse.

Catastrophic brain injuries resulting from playing football have been increasing, based on a recent report that shows serious brain injuries leading to disability among high school football players climbing into the double digits over the past several years.

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The annual report, released from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, was authored by Frederick Mueller, PhD, director of the center and an exercise and sports science professor, with co-author Robert Cantu, MD, the chief of neurosurgical services at Emerson Hospital in Massachusetts.

The center has collected and published data on catastrophic football injuries for 48 years. Their records track deaths, permanent disabilities and major injuries among players at the high school and collegiate levels.

In 2011, 13 high school students suffered a football-related brain injury resulting in permanent disability - the highest number since the center began collecting data.

Until 2008 and 2009, when the number was 10, the number of high school football players with these catastrophic brain injuries remained in the single digits.

The report includes serious injury statistics from the approximately 4.2 million football players in the U.S., including 1.1 million high school players.

Their report reveals a 25 percent hike in football-related brain injuries resulting in disability from 2001 to 2010. The number increased from 52 annual incidents to 66.

Overall, since 1984, a total of 488 players have suffered some form of spinal cord or brain injuries that they did not fully recover from. Brain injuries comprised 164 of these, and the vast majority (148) were sustained by high school students.

Mueller said that better awareness among coaches, players and families may be responsible for some of the increase in brain injuries if more are reported, and more people are playing the game than in past years.

But he said he doesn't believe these facts likely had much influence on the overall numbers since the center's methods for gathering data haven't changed.

According to Mueller, one of the biggest contributors to serious injury is the continued use of head-to-head contact among players even though it was banned in 1976.

"Butt-blocking," "face tackling" or spearing tackles still occur in games at all levels, and the center's reports show that 67 percent of football-related catastrophic injuries that have occurred since 1977 happened while players were making tackles.

While better enforcement, or more discouraging consequences, of head-tackling could put a dent in these numbers, Mueller said other changes in the game could make a difference as well.

For one thing, being sure coaches are well-educated about and vigilantly watching for signs of concussion would help so that they can bench those players until a physician clears them.

These signs include headaches, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to bright light and a general sense of confusion or disorientation.

Similarly, referees should not hesitate to throw a flag when they see a head tackle or other illegal tackle and should be on the lookout for signs of concussions among any of the players.

Coaches and trainers could also hold awareness meetings with their teams and players' parents to emphasize the importance of reporting head injuries and never literally using their heads in the game.

"All of these measures are important if we want to continue to make a positive impact on the game," Mueller said. "Accurate data not only indicate problem spots, but they also help us offer appropriate precautions and reveal the adequacy of our preventive measures."

The report can be downloaded from the university's website. The research was funded by a grant from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Federation of State High School Associations and the American Football Coaches Association.

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Review Date: 
April 18, 2012