In the wake of the tragic death of Ohio State football player Kosta Karageorge, everyone is starting to take a closer look at concussions and their consequences. Concussions and brain changes actually being related to football impacts are starting to become more realistic facts than just a theory. The NFL has been at the forefront of public scrutiny dealing with concussions. Players being reinserted into games, even after hard hits to the head, has been a serious issue, but players long retired filed an expensive lawsuit against the NFL stating that players were not informed of the risks of constant head injuries and won the case. More recently however, a former quarterback from Notre Dame College Prep, Daniel Bukal, has filed a lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association claiming that they have failed to protect athletes from the potential damage of concussions. The lawsuit states that Bukal still suffers from light-headedness, memory loss, and some migraines.
Now, there has been a push to look at younger football players, who were previously overlooked in the concussion discussion. A new study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. suggest that some high school football players show measurable brain changes, even in the absence of a concussion, after just one season. The research team, led by Dr. Christopher Whitlow, says that “For every NFL player, there are 2,000 youth players. That’s close to four million youth players and the vast majority of research on impact-related brain injuries has been on the college and professional level.” He also says that two-thirds of head impacts happen in practice, not just games. In fact, about 56 percent of hits at the high school level occur during practice sessions.
This study of 24 high school football players, aged 16 to 18, is the first and largest of its type. The researchers used Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) helmet-mounted accelerometers to observe the severity and frequency of the collisions. The football team collected data before and after every game, and the players underwent pre and postseason diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. Then, based on the data, the players were divided into two groups—heavy hitters and light hitters. While both groups experienced brain changes due to football impacts, the heavy hitters exhibited the most. Dr. Whitlow is concerned by the findings, but none of the players displayed the typical symptoms of a concussion. Although the study is geared toward exemplifying that concussions and brain changes are actually related to football impacts, it is only the beginning stage of identifying a potential risk in allowing young people to play rigorous contact sports.
One of the main goals of the study is to investigate the long-term effects of these brain changes, such as if they are permanent or temporary. Nonetheless, the risk is identified and certain interventions are being made. Improvements in helmet safety and teaching different, less dangerous maneuvers has been a starting point. Some high schools now have both an athletic trainer and a physical trainer on the sidelines at all times for games, which was usually seen only at the professional level, but still not at practice. It is expensive to have that kind of personnel on hand, so there are still many schools that cannot take that measure because their district simply cannot afford it. Most little league football programs have neither who are trained to diagnose concussions in children. That is why Dr. Whitlow, in light of the realization that concussions and brain changes actually relate to football impacts, urges parents to get involved with their children’s teams. They should know what is going on with their team, know their coaches, and be aware of the symptoms of a concussion.
By Joshua Hamer