The Playbook

Taking the Issue Head On

Taking the Issue Head-On: 5 Things You Need to Know About Traumatic Brain Injury in Football

Top of mind for football players, parents, helmet manufacturers, coaches and fans alike is the alarming reality of concussive and sub-concussive injury. All stakeholders are paying attention and the media has followed suit. From articles about early head trauma spurring the development of depression later in life, to information about inadequate helmet safety performance, to insights about the harmfulness of cumulative sub-concussive blows, it seems that the headlines reveal more and more about football induced TBIs every day.

So how are you to make sense of it all? What do you need to know? And what is needed to make the change that football so desperately needs? Our team at Defend Your Head has highlighted five things that are critically important to understanding—and solving—the head protection dilemma:

1. TBIs dramatically impact the developing brains of our young athletes.

Every year in the US, there are over 3.8 million sports-related concussions. This number vastly underestimates the damage, however, as it only addresses those concussions that were reported and does not account for cumulative sub-concussive blows.

More concerning than their sheer magnitude is the fact that most of these injuries occur in children and young adults whose developing brains are more susceptible to both concussive and sub-concussive injury. Not only is the developing brain more susceptible to these injuries, but there is also mounting evidence that it also undergoes a slower recovery process and has a higher probability of post-recovery recurrence.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently reported on CNN that one in every ten high school football players suffer a concussion every season. An increasing body of reports indicates that long-term damage is a serious possibility. When a developing brain endures a TBI, that brain is at heightened risk of displaying a “neurocognitive stall”—slowing in cognition, social and motor development.

The reports are telling us something, and we must pay attention. The game of football has the rare ability to build discipline, friendships and character, but head protection awaits a much-needed revolution in order to make the field a safer place for athletes.

For more information on concussions amongst young athletes, consult this library of resources from Heads Up.

2. The helmet’s hard outer surface does little to address energy absorption at the point of contact.

Parents and coaches suit their children and adolescents up with the latest head protection technologies—helmets that meet every standard and have glowing reviews. But few know that the helmet was originally designed to prevent head fracture. In fact, the standard testing protocol for helmets, Severity Index, focuses on the helmet’s ability to reduce the risk of head fracture.

Though newer helmets are more effective than older ones due to the increase in protective foam on their interiors, their outer surfaces do little to address energy absorption at the point of contact. The fact remains that the outer shell of the helmet has undergone little dramatic revision over the years, and its hard exterior does not effectively dissipate energy at the point of impact.

A recent article from International Science Times revealed that football helmets, even those intended to prevent concussions, protect the brain only 20 percent better than wearing no helmet at all. While the actual figures in the article remain a point of contention, no one seems to be arguing that head protection in the sport needs awaits a transformation.

3. You needn’t have a concussion nor show concussive symptoms to incur brain damage.

While the lion’s share of the industry’s focus continues to center on addressing concussions, a player free of concussions is not necessarily a player free of brain damage. In fact, an increasing number of reports support the destructiveness of sub-concussive blows—those under-the-radar injuries that are sustained each and every time a player is on the line.

A neuropathologist at Boston University, Dr. Ann McKee, has dedicated herself to uncovering the effects of subconcussive injuries over time. Dr. McKee’s research, which studied the brains of over 20 deceased NFL players, uncovered that nearly all of the players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). According to Dr. McKee’s research, symptoms may not show up until years after the injury occurs, and manifest themselves as behavioral or personality changes, moodiness, depression and dementia.

Current research estimates roughly 17 percent of those who have repeated concussions develop CTE, but according to McKee’s research, the incidence rate may far surpass this figure.

4. Repetitive motion injuries apply to your brain.

As athletes and athletic supporters, we are all familiar with the concept of a repetitive motion injury, which is defined as repeated use of a certain body part to the ultimate demise of that part’s proper function. In contact football, repetitive head impact has become a part of the game.

Accordingly, the same repetitive injury principle applies. A recent study conducted by Purdue University revealed a category of players who were asymptomatic of concussion, yet had measurable neurocognitive function impairment when tested. The culprit? RHI (repetitive head injury).

The study chocked the sport of football, causing the NFL and Ivy League to limit full contact practices, and youth sports organizations to aggressively reduce exposure to RHI amongst young players.

5. This is not a single-stakeholder issue.

Researchers have taken the lead in revealing the danger of concussive and sub-concussive injury, but no single stakeholder can be tasked with assuming the responsibility of addressing it alone. This is a multi-stakeholder problem with a multi-stakeholder solution.

For industry regulators, this means taking a closer look at regulations that could prevent purposeful head to head contact, and re-evaluating the standards that deem a helmet “safe”. For coaches and parents, this means an elevated attentiveness and informedness, and the spurring of a head protection revolution across the entire industry. And for equipment producers, this means a new level of innovation and commitment to solving the problem by developing next generation head protection solutions. At Defend Your Head, we’ve already assumed our role.

Our Role.

Our team at Defend Your Head is dedicated to shifting the tides of the headlines by introducing solutions and success stories. We believe in and love all of the things that make football great: the way it brings us together, the way it teaches our young children confidence, dedication and teamwork, and the distinct role it has as a feature of Americana culture. We are diligently focused on bringing to market practical solutions for the continuation of the sport, the advancement of safe play, and the longevity and health of players’ lives.

Join in. Contact DYH today to learn more.