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Guest Post: Concussions and Our Kids

2013 February 22

By Katie Barnes

Concussions have been an injury plaguing children in youth sports since they were conceived. It is estimated that 53% of high school athletes have suffered a concussion even before entering the high school level of sport (Concussion Facts, n.d.). Concussions are also a problem among collegiate and professional athletes as well, and the topic of head trauma, especially in football, is gaining new focus in the sport community. 36% of college athletes have suffered multiple concussions (Concussion Facts) while more and more research is currently being conducted looking into the effects of concussions on professional players’ cognitive capabilities.

Most recently, the national spotlight has been put on former National Football League (NFL) players who ended their lives by committing suicide. Junior Seau, a linebacker in the NFL, shot himself in the chest in May of 2012. It was suspected that Seau committed suicide because of repeated traumatic brain injuries. Seau’s family donated his brain for research and it was found that Seau suffered from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – the same debilitating brain disease diagnosed in at least two other former NFL players who committed suicide” (Munson, 2012).

The Seau family is currently filing a lawsuit against the NFL for fraud, negligence and wrongful death. They are also suing several football helmet makers (Munson). Dave Duerson shares a similar story. Duerson was a NFL Safety who also shot himself in the chest, leaving a note to his family stating that there was “something going on” in his brain and requesting his brain be studied after death (Munson). Prior to his suicide Duerson was extremely aggressive and uncharacteristically violent. His autopsy also reported that Duerson was suffering from CTE (Munson).

Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman joined together to write a book about the dangers of concussions in contact and non-contact sports. Cantu is a world-renowned neurologist and the senior advisor to the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. Hyman is a sports journalist specializing in youth sports. Their book Concussions and Our Kids highlights different suggestions about how to prevent concussions in sports through reform. The two suggestions I find most compelling are no tackle football before the age of fourteen and no  body checking in youth hockey before age fourteen.

Before I read this book, I was unaware of the severity of a concussion. I could not even define what a concussion actually is. According to Cantu and Hyman (2012), a concussion is a violent shaking of the brain inside the skull. Two types of concussions can occur. The first is a linear acceleration, meaning the brain makes contact with the back of the skull then moves forward making contact with the front. Second is a rotational acceleration: when the brain rotates or spins within the skull. The inside of the skull is a rigid, not smooth, which can cause tears or lacerations that are not visible on CT or MRI scans. Concussions that are not properly treated and/or continual concussions can cause life-long damage to the brain that is irreversible (Cantu and Hyman 2012).

Youth football players account for 70% of the approximately 5 million athletes who participate in American Football (Daniel et al. 2012). Children are especially vulnerable to concussions. Cantu (2012) explains that fibers in our brains are covered in Myelin that protects them. Children’s brains have less Myelin, so structures in their brains are exposed and susceptible to damage. Another factor that puts children more at risk for concussions is the fact that their heads and necks are disproportionately larger than the rest of their bodies. Their necks are weaker and because of those underdeveloped physical qualities, children are unable to brace themselves for a hit. The long-term effects of repetitive head trauma are unknown for children. (Cantu & Hyman 2012)

A study recently conducted by Virginia Tech researchers looked at the impact of hits that youth football players face. They placed instrumented helmets on boys seven to eight-years-old and documented the impact of over 750 hits to the head in one season. Seven players participated in the study, meaning each of them faced around 107 impacts throughout their season. Most of the impacts, they found, occurred during practice. Both linear and rotational accelerations occurred. Their findings are astonishing. Some of the head impacts the young players experienced were equal to some of the biggest hits faced by college players. If children only seven-years-old are facing the same impact levels of those that college-level players face, how can we be naïve enough to think that our children are safe (Daniel et al. 2012).

Dr. Cantu’s points that children’s brains and bodies are underdeveloped before the age of fourteen is what convinced me that tackle football should be postponed until about the high school age. Another point Cantu and Hyman make about the postponement of full-contact football is that children do not understand the full extent of the decision they are making. Children cannot be expected to accept the dangers of tackle football when they are not fully developed cognitively. In most cases, the children’s parents do not even fully understand the dangers of the sport. (Cantu and Hyman 2012)

There are also many success stories of extremely successful NFL players who did not start playing football until high school. Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots, who is also believed to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time, did not start playing football until he was a freshman in high school. Brady’s parents specifically wanted him to avoid breaking any bones early on in his life (Cantu and Hyman, 2012). Walter Payton, one of America’s most outstanding running backs, did not start playing football until he was a junior in high school. Payton went on to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame and won two NFL Most Valuable Player Awards (Oxford African American Studies Center). Jason Pierre-Paul, a 6’6” defensive end for the New York Giants, did not start playing football until his junior year of high school as well because a basketball injury prohibited him from playing basketball. Pierre-Paul is now a Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowler only three years after being drafted (Bennett, 2009). It is because of success stories like these that I agree with Cantu and Hyman that tackle football should be delayed until fourteen years of age.

Of all sports in the United States, football is responsible for the most concussions and therefore, that sport receives the most attention (Daniel et al. 2012). However, it is also important to note the dangers that lurk in youth hockey. We have all seen the hard-hitting, jerking, and body slamming that occurs in hockey but in our society it has just become a ‘part of the game’. Many people enjoy hockey for the sole reason that players can fight each other. Cantu and Hyman agree, noting that many fans have glorified the hockey experience, coming to the games to watch the brawls that will surely ensue (Cantu and Hyman 2012).

The conditions present in the sport of ice hockey very much foster the possibility of concussions. Players must acquire balance every second while wearing skates on the slippery ice. Many of them will lose balance and fall, rapidly hitting their head against the ice and/or wall and at times even sliding across the ice and colliding with a wall. Extreme contact with the ice can even cause paralysis of the spine. The fighting aspect of the game also encourages the likelihood of a concussion. Basically, the sport itself asks for children to incur concussions (Cantu and Hyman 2012).

Cantu and Hyman also note that in 2009, it was found that among players suffering from a concussion in hockey, thirty four percent of them will return to the same game in which they acquired the concussion. CTE, the degenerate brain disease suffered by many football players, is also suffered by many hockey players. National Hockey League player Derek Boogaard, dubbed a bruiser for his tendency to fight in games, died of a drug and alcohol overdose. His brain was donated for further research and it was found that he had also suffered from CTE. The most shocking thing about the story was that Boogaard was only twenty-eight-years-old (Cantu and Hyman, 2012). If someone so young had already faced this disease, it just leads me to believe that his age of onset was when he was very young.

The alarming rate at which hockey players receive concussions is yet another reason I believe that body checking should be postponed until fourteen years of age. The Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at seven regular hockey seasons from 1997 to 2004 and found “a total of 559 concussions [occurring] during regular season games, working out to a concussion rate of 5.8 for every 100 players, or an estimated 1.8 concussions per 1,000 player-hours” (TSN Sports). There is still yet to be research done on concussions in youth hockey (Cantu and Hyman 2012), but based on the research done in the NHL and the underdevelopment of children’s heads and necks before the age of fourteen, I agree with Cantu and Hyman that body checking in youth hockey should be banned until then.

Concussions have always been a serious issue in sports and are being more focused on by the media today more than ever. It is imperative that changes are implemented to ensure the safety of young athletes who are underdeveloped and too young to understand the risks that they are taking when they agree to play a sport. I believe that these changes can occur when parents, children, and fans become educated and understand that a sport can cause real injuries and death. When people educate themselves is the time when real changes will occur to lessen the dangers of youth sports.

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