The cloud over the start of the National Football League opening season hung just as heavily over the athletic fields where young people play.  Parents who are concerned about their children playing sports with the potential for head injuries have reason to worry. But to bench a teen throws family relationships into tumoil. Nonetheless, just prior to opening season a report by the American Academy of Neurology confirmed the frequency of serious brain injuries in football.

Concussions are common and research highlights the danger of repetitive hits to the head. 

The study, published in Neurology, included 3,439 former NFL players with an average age of 57. The researchers determined that professional football players were three times more likely to die as a result of diseases that damage brain cells than the general population. They cited the risk of death from Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) to be four times higher than in the general population.

Teen athletes at risk

Dr. Ann McKee is co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), which has pointed out that “changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.”

Dr. McKee explained:

“In autopsies of some teens who played high-school football, we found early changes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain — similar to the more advanced stages found in older players.”

The center’s autopsies show such changes in the brain as tau protein deposits and neurofibrillary tangles consistent with brain injuries.  According to the CSTE, “The physical symptoms associated with brain degeneration include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.”

In 2010, Pediatrics reported on a review of national databases of emergency departments that found that in visits by teens -- half of the 502,000 visits were sports-related. About 95,000 resulted from concussions that students received playing football, basketball, baseball, soccer and ice hockey.

Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs of the emergency department at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence is also concerned. She has created a series of informational videos for parents and students. 

Dr. Jacobs said, “Shouldn’t we be rethinking how this game is played? My own frustration comes when I see kids show up in the E.R. whose parents tell me were returned to play after an injury.  Despite my mantra ‘When in doubt, sit them out,’ it’s just not happening.” Concussions: Kids in the game after head injuries, THRIVE, Providence Journal

Accelerometers to measure impact

Dr. J.J. Trey Crisco is using accelerometers to study sports-related concussions. Director of the Bioengineering Laboratory in the Department of Orthopedics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He was one of the co-authors of a recent report in Neurology studying college athletes. The findings: “Repetitive head impacts over the course of a single season may negatively impact learning in some collegiate athletes.”

Dr. Crisco said pointed out: “Our technology and studies have been focused at understanding the link between head-impact biomechanics and acute brain injury. We have accomplished quite a lot in the past five years in advancing our understanding of the biomechanics, but establishing definitive relationships with concussion injury remains.” Football: Chilling medical news for pros and teens, Sunday, Providence Journal.

Kids hate sitting out the game

One of the biggest problems that parents face comes when young athletes are injured and do not want to miss out on the game or take the time required to rest and recover. In addition to risking re-injury and longer lasting neurocognitive effects, there are immediate issues.

Dr. Sherri Provencal, who is with the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, said:  

“Concussed athletes can experience debilitating headaches, fatigue, irritability, mood swings and concentration problems. Complete physical and cognitive rest is needed; that is, no sports, exercise, video games, texting, computer time or school work. This can be very difficult for a teenager. Therefore, we need to appreciate the psychological side effects of concussion such as feelings of isolation, self-identity changes and negative beliefs about themselves — in order to promote recovery.”

Fantasy football?

Given the documented danger with the sport, the question must be asked, “Does the game need to change?” In many ways it has, at least in practice sessions, with more safety precautions and regulations being issued. But will football ever be safe for young people?

For young people, it seems the sure way to keep them injury-free is to turn them onto Fantasy Football. They might still be able to experience the thrill without the risk of personal injury. While it doesn’t give them exercise, it will keep them safe.

Gratitude? Maybe not yet

Will they express gratitude that you as a parent kept them safe?  Maybe someday, in the interim just keep telling the benched athletes how much you love them. 

And in response, they will say, "Yeah, sure, whatever. If you loved me, you would let me play the game.”

Copyright 2012 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved

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