If your kids play football, you should be well aware by now that they are at risk for concussions.
Fortunately, coaches and players are becoming better aware of concussion symptoms that can occur after big hits, which will hopefully lessen the risk of permanent brain damage that can happen if kids get a second concussion before they have recovered from a first one.
But what if it isn't just big hits and concussions that you have to worry about? There has been some discussion and concern lately that multiple sub-concussive blows to the head, which are not as forceful as the ones that can cause a concussion, can also cause symptoms and damage in the brain. In fact, this idea was in the news recently after Owen Thomas, a college football player, committed suicide and was found to have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain when an autopsy was done.
While chronic traumatic encephalopathy is sometimes found in older football players who have had multiple concussions, it was a surprise for a younger player who had never had a concussion to have this type of brain damage. It was thought that it could have been caused by multiple, sub-concussive blows to his head over all of his years of playing football.
A new study about concussions that is going to be published in the Journal of Neurotrauma and which is highlighted in an upcoming Sports Illustrated article by David Epstein, seems to confirm the risk of getting a large number of mild hits to the front of the head. High school football players in this study had accelerometers placed in their helmets to measure the force of hits they took, had their brains scanned with functional MRIs, and had regular tests of their memory and concentration.
Surprisingly, they found that many of the football players who had never had a concussion and had no obvious symptoms, still had declines when they took visual memory tests and had changes on their functional MRIs. Fortunately, the declines of the visual memory tests weren't permanent and had disappeared after they had been off from football for nine months.
In addition to taking the steps to decrease the number of concussions, like the NFL cracking down on illegal hits, coaches, players, and parents might take steps to decrease the number of hits to the head kids take each week. This might include one fewer day of full-contact practice and avoiding the celebratory head-butts that seem to be popular.
If these milder, repetitive hits to the head can cause damage at an early age in some people, even if everyone takes steps to decrease these hits, it makes one wonder if the drive to have kids play tackle football at younger ages is a good idea. Instead of rushing into tackle football when kids are in 1st or 2nd grade, it might make more sense to play flag football for at least a few more years, like in the NFL youth flag football league.