With all the latest coverage about football related head trauma, one of the biggest questions has been how safe it is for kids to be playing the game. Luckily, the latest research says that there is little evidence playing high school football can lead to the type of brain trauma we are seeing in NFL players. The type of trauma that has lead to a high count of serious depression or early onset dementia.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned however. Steven Broglio, director of the Neurotrauma Research Laboratory, says that though “we’re not seeing an epidemic of men in their early 50’s with early Alzheimer’s because they played high school football,” there is now evidence that high school contact sports can have a more subtle long-term effect on the brain.
While all the popular media has focused on concussions, it is appearing that the bigger worry may be the slow accumulation of body blows that rattle the brain. Getting hit hard enough in the chest to jolt your brain can damage fragile brain tissue and nerves.
If you somehow have never seen a football game, the game pretty much consists of exactly those types of hits. Over just one season, the average player gets hit around 1,000 times, and researchers compare the amount of stress on the body from one football game to being in a 20 to 30 MPH car wreck.
Most of these hits don’t result in concussions, but they still do subtle damage that can build up to brain trauma.
Broglio’s recent University of Michigan study compared college students with and without a history of concussions, and there were no immediate outward differences between the two group. When you look closely however, the students with a history of concussions showed changes in balance, gait, and electrical activity in the brain.
“These are all very high-functioning college students,” Broglio said about the students who had a history of concussions. “But on a very subtle level, something has changed. It appears that because of concussive or sub-concussive blows, there has been a permanent change in the brain and as they grow older, this could magnify.”
Researches at Purdue University have also been studying the effects of sub-concussive hits by placing sensors within the helmets of high school football players for two seasons. These researchers have come to a conclusion that may change everything we believed about concussions. They come from being hit repeatedly over time, not singular hard hits.
Eric Nauman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and field expert in the central nervous system and muscoloskeletal trauma stated, “”The most important implication of the new findings is the suggestion that a concussion is not just the result of a single blow, but it’s really the totality of blows that took place over the season.”
Usually what we have come to identify as a concussion is normally caused by one hit that “broke the camel’s back.” That may explain why concussions have been able to be caused by a wildly varying strength of hits.
What’s worse, the Purdue researcher’s findings have bad news for concussion diagnoses. The primary way of diagnosing concussions has been analyzing symptoms such as fatigue, confusion, and mood changes, but according to the researchers, they have found a lot of change in brain activity, even without symptoms.
These findings just make the issue of high school football safety unclear, and highlight just how far we have to go in researching brain trauma. Every day we find out more about brain trauma, but we are also being sent back to the drawing board very frequently.
For more information about the latest brain trauma research, read Julia Mack’s article at MLive.com. MLive is running a week-long event focusing on brain trauma called Concussions Hit Home. Make sure to check it out.