The film, Concussion, stars Will Smith as forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – suffered by professional football players, brought to light the horrific consequences of years of sustaining head injuries as a result of playing football. Dr. Omalu’s findings, as well as post-mortem examinations conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine of more than 100 football players, including legends Junior Seau, Frank Gifford and Ken Stabler, revealed all but one had CTE brought on by years of sustaining football head injuries. With these data and the consequences of head injuries being so dire, will Americans ever cease to love their favorite sport? The answer has to do with understanding what football head injuries mean, and how we can go about preventing them.
A Collision Course
Comprised of soft tissue, the brain is cushioned by spinal fluid and protected by the shell of the skull. When a concussion occurs, the impact can jolt the brain, forcing it literally move around inside the head. The trauma sustained can include bruising, damaged blood vessels and injury to the nerves. For “mild” concussions, expect a host of seemingly inconsequential symptoms, which are listed below. However, when enough concussions are sustained – no matter how mild – there runs a risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an irreversible brain condition that can result in dementia, aggression or depression, as well as risky and dangerous behaviors.
Fortunately, there are a number of precautions coaches, parents and athletes can take to reduce – and hopefully eliminate – the risk of head injuries. They include:
- Wearing a helmet – Even though this may seem like obvious, it’s worth emphasizing. Although a helmet won’t always prevent a head injury, it can significantly reduce the risk of sustaining one. The helmet must be properly fitted and in good condition, with a hard-plastic outer shell and thick layer of padding inside. Helmets should be inspected before and after each wear; damaged or cracked helmets should be discarded and replaced by a new one.
- Have young athletes undergo pre-participation testing – Prior to signing up for a contact sport like football, adolescent athletes should undergo testing that focuses on their concentration skills, reaction times, and memory. The purpose of this is to create a baseline to check if any changes or disturbances occur over the course of their play.
- Employ and enforce proper technique – Nearly half of all reported concussions occur in high school football, and about one-third of those injuries occur during practice sessions. It’s a coach’s responsibility to ensure their athletes are safe and never left unsupervised by responsible, knowledgeable adults. Improper technique should be called and corrected immediately.
- Play Fair – In football and in any contact sport, rules are not meant to be broken, especially when they regard safety, fair play, and sportsmanship. When a team, player or coach infracts these rules, they should be held accountable.
- Reduce Contact – Avoid full-speed head-on blocking or tackling drills where players are greater than three yards apart. Limiting scrimmages and full-speed drills, as well as mandating young children who do play tackle football to never use their heads in any kind of maneuver, can significantly reduce the risk of head injuries.
- Safeguard Your Surroundings – Fields should be set up where there is no excess equipment laying around and should be level, without pits or holes. Goalposts should be adequately padded and marked.
How to recognize a football head injury
There are several ways to tell if an athlete has sustained a football head injury. Symptoms may include:
- Headache or pressure in the head
- Ringing in the ears
- Dizziness and balance problems
- Blurred or double vision
- Nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating, as well as memory problems
- Appearing dazed or stunned
- Delayed response
- Sensitivity to light or noise
If you or your child should sustain a head injury while playing football, seek medical attention immediately. Rest and avoid screens and video games until the symptoms subside. Refrain from play until fully recovered. Returning to the field prematurely make it more likely that the injured athlete will suffer another head injury from an even less traumatic impact.
Your Role on the Team
With their developing brains, young children who play tackle football are at an exponentially higher risk of developing lifelong brain trauma than if they start when they are older. As much as parents want to see a mark in the “Win” column, their children’s health is not worth the risk. Likewise, there has been much discussion of the effects of other sports practices on the brain. Heading the ball in soccer or head bonks in gymnastics, for instance, as well as extreme sports like skateboarding, all come with risks for brain injury. That said, coaches and parents should be especially vigilant to ensure all precautions are not only followed, but instilled into their local sports culture.
With Coloradans being as active as they are, there is always a risk of developing a head injury. If you suspect you or a loved one has had a head injury, seek immediate medical attention as a thorough examination and monitoring is critical – especially within the first 24 hours of the injury.
Whether it is sports-related or the result of an accident, don’t let a head injury go untreated. The board-certified, fellowship trained physicians at Colorado Center of Orthopaedic Excellence are experts in such injuries and will offer the most effective and timely treatment. If you have any questions about our orthopedic services, please call our office at (719) 623-1050. To schedule an appointment, you can call us or use our secure online appointment request form.