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‘Catastrophic’ Brain Injuries Rise Among High School Football Players

By Mark Long | The Wall Street Journal Health Blog April 19, 2012

A growing number of football players, especially in high school, are suffering from catastrophic brain injuries like subdural hematomas (blood on the brain), according to a report out this week from the University of North Carolina.

While the number of kids with these brain injuries is small — 13 out of about 1.1 million high-school players — it’s the highest tally since the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at UNC started collecting the brain-injury stats in 1984, says Dr. Frederick Mueller, the center’s director and an emeritus professor of exercise and sports science.

Why are more kids getting hurt like this? “The style of play is really behind it,” Mueller tells the Health Blog. “They’re using their heads more,” perhaps modeling their play after the hard-hitting pros. The report comes just weeks after the New Orleans Saints lost their head coach to a year’s suspension and saw their former defensive coordinator get banned from the game for life for a bounty system rewarding big hits.

Mueller says brain-injury rates dropped sharply after head-first tackles and blocks were banned for high school and college play in 1976. But the injury numbers have been ticking up. Defensive backs take the brunt of these catastrophic injuries, accounting for 34.6% of the 324 recorded between 1977 and 2011, the report says. Over the same time, tackling and “tackling head-down” accounted for 40.7% and 19.1%, respectively, of the injuries.

The report is just the latest in a string highlighting the sometimes long-lasting health consequences of full-contact football and other hard-hitting sports.

As WSJ reported last summer, a pair of studies — one of former NFL players and another of military veterans — provided evidence that concussions and other head injuries might make the brain more vulnerable to development of symptoms characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The year before, studies showed that more kids were getting concussions from playing sports and that they take longer to recover from them than adults and older adolescents. And, as the L.A. Times reports today, a new study suggests boxers and mixed martial arts fighters can suffer brain damage years before symptoms appear.

Mueller says he doesn’t have any data, but he suspects officials aren’t calling penalties on head-first hits as much as they should be, and “coaches should be teaching shoulder tackling and blocking” more strictly.

Vince Thompson, a spokesman for the American Football Coaches Association, or AFCA, says the organization brings in doctors and hosts talks on head injuries and tackling at the organization’s annual convention. “We try to stress to our coaches to teach the proper tackling techniques: Keep your head up. See your opponent…,” Thompson says. “Hopefully one of these days we’ll have a big zero next to the bar graph that says ‘brain injuries’ or ‘head injuries.’” The AFCA, NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS, funded the survey.

Bob Colgate, the director of sports and sports medicine at the NFHS, says the organization tries to educate coaches and officials as much as it can to better enforce the rules it sets for nearly every state. “The number-one priority for our rules committee is to do everything they can to minimize risk,” Colgate tells the Health Blog. He noted a new rule put in place this year requiring a player to sit out one down if his helmet falls off and it’s not related to foul.

Parents can play a role in helping reduce brain injury, Mueller says. “They should know how the coaches plan to teach blocking and tackling. They should know about the science of concussion,” he says.

​Please note: The information on this website is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider regarding specific medical concerns or treatment.

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