School athletes risk suffering concussions

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

skull brains
Our brain can suffer major damage if we hit our heads hard enough.

It’s not uncommon for young athletes to continue playing their favorite sport after they hurt themselves. According to doctors, though, the best thing for young competitors to do is sit it out until their bodies completely heal. This is especially true for concussions – minor brain damage caused by serious blows to the head – which are often experienced by football players.

Experts recently estimated that concussions make up about 5 to 10 percent of all sports injuries for kids and teens, which is pretty big when you consider that there’s around 3 million youth football players in the USA! Last year, the White House held a Safe Sports Concussion Summit, where more than 200 professionals put their heads together (no pun intended), to address the issue.

The summit brought together members from the National Football League (NFL), medical experts, military defense department representatives, and even pro athletes. Why? To prevent concussions and raise awareness about the injury. See, many concussions are confused with mild headaches, so tough competitors choose to play on, unaware of the damage! If the players barely notice the injury, it can’t be that harmful… right? Wrong! In fact, researchers from North Carolina and Virginia once used advanced helmets to prove just how dangerous football concussions can be.

Boxers often suffer more concussions than football players, because punches apply “rotational force” that can shake up the brain.

Three football teams with players between the ages of 6 and 18 volunteered for the study. Each of the young athletes wore “smart helmets” equipped with an accelerometer – a device that measures the speed of an object – to record any collisions the players experienced. Over the course of an entire season, the accelerometers tracked more than 16,000 head-jarring impacts! Now, it’s not like every impact was strong enough to cause mild brain damage, but “when you look at the total risk that a player sustains over the course of the season, those risks can be the mathematical equivalent of two to three concussions,” says Joel Stitzel, chair of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Now, you’d think that football players would just heal from their concussions within a couple weeks or so, right? I mean, I’ve sprained both my ankles playing soccer more than 3 times each, and I’m walking around fine! Actually, a very serious concussion can affect brain development for the rest of a player’s life. The sad part is, students don’t understand the seriousness of the injury.

In a survey conducted last year, researchers found that more than 50% of high school football athletes continue to play after they received a serious blow to the head. Scientists hope that their studies on concussions will encourage individuals to take football safety more seriously. Alex Powers, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Wake Forest, suggests using smart helmets is a great start. “I hope that one day we will be able to have a sensor in each helmet and come up with a metric that says… this player has a chance of having an injury, they need to stop and have a battery of tests.”

Featured image courtesy of John McStravick on Flickr. Image of skulls courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.