Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Concussions: More of a silent killer than we knew

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As a youth sports coach, I’m taught to look for concussion symptoms to help a player avoid further damage. However, new research is showing that the damage could already be happening even if a player is showing no outward signs of injury. From the Chicago Tribune:

…[A] new study of an Indiana high school football team hints that some athletes are suffering brain injuries that go undiagnosed, allowing the players to continue getting battered, unaware of the possible cognitive damage that has been done.

Of 21 high school players monitored for a full season by a team of researchers from Purdue University, four players who were never diagnosed with concussions were found to have suffered brain impairment that was at least as bad as that of other players who had been deemed concussed and removed from play.

“They’re not exhibiting any outward sign and they’re continuing to play,” said Thomas Talavage, an associate professor at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue and the lead researcher on the study. “The cognitive impairment that we observed with them is actually worse than the one observed with the concussed players.”

The report, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Neurotrauma, found that some players received more than 1,800 hits to the head during practices and games, some with a force 20 times greater than what a person would feel while riding a roller coaster.

The research is coming out as the debate rages over what is more damaging: one hard, individual hit, or the cumulative effects of multiple collisions. The science is rapidly pointing to the latter. It helps explain why the brain of the late Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry showed concussion damage, even though he was never diagnosed with such a condition, and why the brain of Penn player Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in August, showed trauma, even though he had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

In the Chicago Tribune article, players and coaches aren’t dismissive of the study’s results. Their worry is more about whether their players and teammates will play hard if they’re worried about head injuries.

“It’s a tough slope because you could end up scaring kids away from even playing football, and you see that a lot,” said Michael Holmes, the football coach at Leo High School in Chicago. “We make our kids conscious of it, but we don’t try to scare them.”

Reilly O’Toole, quarterback at Wheaton [Ill.] Warrenville South High School, said he doesn’t think at all about head injuries.

“If you think about injuries or concussions, that’s when they happen,” he said. “Once you start playing not to get hurt, that’s when you get hurt. It’s a contact sport. If you don’t like contact, you shouldn’t be playing.”

The Purdue researchers aren’t (yet) calling for the end of tackle football, but they are recommend scaling back full-contact practices so kids don’t have to take so many hits.

By the way, the Purdue researchers, citing their continuing study, are not telling the Lafayette Jefferson High players which of the four have signs of, not to put too fine a point on it, brain damage. If it were my kid, I would be demanding to know if mine was one of the four.

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