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American Football Has A Concussion Problem. What Are The Solutions?

Photo courtesy of West Point via Flickr

The U.S. invented American football, and like most other uniquely American creations and pastimes, it’s loved dearly.

But high impact sports, however beloved, are not without their caveats. 250 pound men tackling other 250 pound men at high speeds is dangerous at best, and permanently damaging at worst.

Specifically, the rate of head injuries, concussions, and their impacts are a concern for the NFL, and risky for both professional and student athletes.

Where it began

In 1994, the NFL created the MTBI (Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee) to study the effects of head injuries on NFL athletes.

Despite good intentions, there were several issues with the MTBI, including

  • The lead researcher was a rheumatologist, with minimal experience in brain science.
  • The reports’ conclusions initially claimed concussions had no long-term consequences, contradicting other research at the time, which associate multiple head injuries with neurological problems later in life
  • The committee was also called out for their studies’ small sample size and misinformed conclusions.

The NFL publicly admitted that concussions do lead to long-term problems in 2009, acknowledging that ex-players suffered frequently from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 76 out of 79 deceased players examined presented evidence of the degenerative brain disease post-mortem.

The extent of the damage

The list of NFL players (both diseased and alive) with CTE or ALS is growing evidence of a link between repetitive head injuries (RHI) and brain disease.

Doctors have also only recently become aware of RHI’s cognitive effect on players that did not present traditional symptoms of concussion. Players hit repeatedly presented with more impaired visual memory skills than those actually diagnosed with concussions.

ahasidebarIt’s also been reported by the NFL that about one third of retired players suffer from some long-term cognitive problem as a result of playing football.

Over 4,500 have sued the NFL for concealing the dangers of concussions and rushing hurt players back into the games. The NFL denied these claims, but made a $765 million settlement in 2013.

It’s worth noting as well that NFL doctors are often not trusted by athletes, as they have financial conflicts of interest that don’t always prioritize caution or safety.

The extent of such damage is still not completely known in spite of ongoing research aimed to gain new insight on the matter. The suicides of several athletes, found linked to brain injuries, have added new pressure to the issue.

Can we fix it?

Now that light has been shed on the potential calamity head trauma can lead to in the long-term, the obvious question is how to fix it. Better helmets? Stricter game rules? Or — God forbid — banning high-impact sports?

Worry not, football lovers. The game isn’t going anywhere, but with luck, players will be better protected, treated, and educated on risks going forward.

Technology may very well be sports’ saving grace, as sensor-clad helmets are being designed to detect serious impact. Just such helmets, developed by Riddell, are being tested by high school athletes in fall of 2014, in spite of the company’s past safety-related lawsuits.

Other similar innovations include:

  • A collar that compresses vessels in the neck, and therefore reduces internal movement of the brain.
  • A Smart Helmet by Concussion Mitigation Technologies LLC uses microcomputer software to control tiny airbags within the helmet, which are triggered by predictive movement in the brain to reduce concussions.
  • Company Xenith’s helmet absorbs shock with technology that releases air to help minimize the head’s movement upon impact. Xenith equipment is already being worn by professional athletes as well as college and high school football players.

Though most experts agree that a completely concussion-proof helmet is next to impossible, better helmets are the first step toward bettering athlete safety.

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Jennifer Markert