These days, just about everyone knows football is a dangerous sport for your brain. But, what they might not know is that some positions may be riskier than others.
A recently published, NFL-funded study suggests that some players are more likely to experience more severe brain injuries more frequently than other positions.
As lead researcher Kevin Guskiewicz, Ph.D., explained in the journal Radiology, the findings show that the “magnitude, location, and frequency of head impacts” varies between players in “non-speed positions” – such as offensive and defensive linemen – and “speed positions.”
For example, running backs may be more likely to be hit at higher speeds. However, they are likely to be hit in varying places on the body. Linemen, on the other hand, are hit more frequently in the same spot – their helmet.
These repetitive impacts to the head may contribute to “more localized damage” in the white matter of the brain for linemen.
“These findings suggest the playing position of an athlete may change the effects of concussions on the brain,” wrote Guskiewicz, research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a release. “The mechanisms of concussions in non-speed players are fundamentally different from those of speed position players, suggesting that perhaps position-specific helmets are warranted.”
In the study, the researchers examined 64 former college and NFL players, including an even mix of players from speed and non-speed positions. Approximately half of the players reported experiencing three or more concussions during their career, while the other half said they had one or zero brain injuries.
The players underwent MRI scans using two different imaging techniques to evaluate both brain structure and function while the athletes simultaneously completed a memory task.
The researchers say the report indicates that “the primary playing position of a football athlete is a modifier to the effects of recurrent concussion, and may be a risk factor for the development of traumatic neurodegenerative disease.”
The team notes that college players with three or more concussions showed significantly more damage to the white matter of the brains, however, the former NFL players with the same number of concussions did not. Co-author Michael Clark suggests this may be because the study excluded players with serious cognitive issues.
“But the findings could suggest that a career with additional exposure to football is not necessarily worse than a shorter duration of exposure,” he said in a statement.