Football champions are prone to proudly recount the number of tackles, quarterback sacks or Super Bowl rings they’ve achieved over the course of a career. But these days, it’s not uncommon to hear linebackers pepper their tales of glory with talk of repeated, concurrent concussions . . . sometimes more than 100.
While this is shocking enough for adult professionals, the American Academy of Neurology recognizes the risk to younger players and advices a dramatic change for youth sports programs. The change would include the presence of a qualified athletic trainer on the field at all times. That includes games and practices.
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, chair of the academy’s sports neurology department, goes so far as to suggest if an athletic trainer isn’t feasible, then contact sports should be avoided. In addition, athletes with symptoms of a concussion should not be allowed to play and an evaluation by a specialist should be required before they can get back on the field at all. A blow to the head is more than “getting your bell rung.”
College sports and pro football teams have already adopted these guidelines. This comes in the wake of startling research that shows repeated blows to the head resulting in concussions have serious long-term consequences . . . including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The brain is incredibly fragile and concussions cause brain injury. It’s that simple. Treating concussions as a “ding” or “getting your bell rung” only deflects from the seriousness of the blow.
You may have heard the story about Andre Waters – an NFL defensive back who at the age of 44, committed suicide. During autopsy, the pathologist concluded his brain had the appearance of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. The cause? Probably the multiple concussions that took their toll over the course of his career.
Or perhaps the early roots of the damage took hold in a high school stadium. At this point, it’s too early to say.
In any event, new findings are stunning. While concussions were once considered an invisible injury, posthumous examinations reveal something far from harmless, invisible “dings.” They show extensive brain damage and clinical signs of dementia one would expect to find in Alzheimer’s patients.
These reports have hastened the conclusion that contact sports conducive to head trauma suggest a higher risk for Alzheimer’s. The NFL has expanded the list of concussion symptoms that could bar a player from returning to the field. Helmet to helmet hits are fined and players participating in these collisions are threatened with suspension.A trained athletic trainer on every field is the ideal.
Of course, it would be difficult to place a certified athletic trainer at every single athletic event in the country. Millions of adolescent children play football. Plus, not only are there not enough trainers available, it would be an extremely expensive proposition for already cash poor schools. However, it’s a laudable goal.
In the meantime, federal guidelines are under development that will dictate how concussions in school age children should be handled. The long-term consequences such as decreased cognitive functioning, depression, anxiety, dementia, personality changes, and increased risk of Alzheimer’s require a serious transformation in how we view contact sports.