While the NFL has been fighting a “concussion crisis”, more worrying findings have been coming out of other sports, and now the issue of so-called subconcussive hits is reaching the most popular sport in the United States.
A new study claims the more hits a football player’s head takes over the course of a season, the more changes show up on MRI scans of the player’s brain, even in the absence of concussion. These findings are similar to related studies undertaken on soccer players who head the ball a high number of times per season.
The researchers used data from helmet sensors to estimate the risk associated with all impacts to the head sustained by 24 young players during a season, then compared these risks to the white matter changes in the players’ brain visible by diffusion tensor imaging. They saw a very close correlation.
The findings were presented by Alexander Powers, MD, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, during the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) 82nd Annual Meeting.
It will take several follow up studies to confirm the potential effect of subconcussive hits on the brains of athletes, but all evidence suggests that repeated head impacts of any severity may be more risky than we ever imagined. If this is the case, nearly every major sport should be worried about how they will protect their players in the future, because these findings present a problem exponentially larger than any “concussion crisis” of the moment.