Football is a violent sport. On any fall Sunday in America, coaches, announcers, players, and analysts describe the game in terms of war. Teams “go to battle” with aerial or ground attacks and “blitz” the opposing quarterback. Passes are described as bullets or bombs. The verbal violence is reflected on the field, as injuries are commonplace and range from broken or dislocated fingers to torn ligaments to concussions and spinal injuries.
In the past, the attitude toward football injuries has been one of “sucking it up” and returning to the field. It is easy to pop a dislocated finger back into place, wrap a sprain tightly, and administer cortisone shots and fluids so that players can return to the game, but what about the injuries that are not visible and cannot be measured? Football players have described getting their “bell rung” or “seeing stars” and returning to the field of play. Only in recent history have these symptoms been recognized as possible concussions, causing players to undergo extensive testing and to have to pass rigorous brain function tests before they are allowed to return to play.
A national campaign to raise awareness about the serious risks associated with concussion has been coupled with rule and equipment changes designed to prevent head injuries. High profile suicides by former pro athletes have been attributed to damage in the brain caused by repeated concussions and have added to the discussion of not only how to treat concussion, but also how to prevent it in the first place.
The new focus on prevention of head injuries in sports has trickled down to the young athletes playing sports during their formative years. Parents are steering children toward less violent sports or forbidding the playing of sports altogether. Even Pop Warner leagues have implemented rule changes to reduce contact on the field.
Unfortunately, according to an analysis of sports-related concussions in young athletes by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, not enough actual data exists regarding how to prevent and treat concussions. Studies have shown that certain sports cause higher numbers of concussions, as does competing in actual games or matches rather than practice. Girls also tend to suffer concussions at a higher rate. The report “found little evidence” that equipment such as helmets, mouth guards, and headbands actually reduce the risk of brain injury.
Current methods for treating concussions focus mainly on rest, but no research exists as to how long to rest and what type of rest is needed. Within the eight year period between 2001 and 2009, sports-related concussions rose from 150,000 to 250,000. Whether the greater number of reported concussions is due to an actual rise in numbers or the heightened awareness of concussion and the risks associated with brain injury is not known.
According to U.S. health advisers, the improved safety measures regarding concussions has led to the underreporting of head injuries by young athletes who do not want to miss out on playing time or be seen as weak. These athletes attempt to hide their symptoms, which may include memory problems, headaches, and sensitivity to light. Mood changes and a possible link to mental illness have also been attributed to concussion.
As long as age-old attitudes regarding being tough and playing through the pain persist, young athletes will continue to hide their symptoms from coaches, parents, and teammates alike. Fortunately, these athletes do not carry the sole burden of preventing and treating concussion. Responsibility also rests on coaches and parents to be aware of the symptoms and to create an atmosphere within the team or at home that does not emphasize winning at all costs regardless of the physical and mental toll that may take. This attitude must also be carried over to college and professional athletics so that children have positive role models who recognize the need for caution. Equipment can be upgraded with the latest technology and rules can punish those who disregard the safety of themselves and others, but ultimately it is a change in the culture of sports at all levels that will truly make the most difference.
By Jennifer Pfalz