The bone-crunching violence of football is part of the appeal. (I submit as evidence the fact that this YouTube video, which consists of three minutes of people running full-speed into each other, has garnered close to 500,000 views.) But critics have long warned that the neurological effects of some of these hits can be extreme, even deadly. Now, the National Football League is changing its guidelines to prevent players with concussions from returning to play before they are healed.
The New York Times reports:
The new rule, which will take effect in this week’s games, still allows players with some fleeting concussion symptoms to return to games.
Symptoms that require immediate removal include amnesia, poor balance and an abnormal neurological examination, whether or not those symptoms quickly subside. For symptoms like dizziness and headache, however, a player can return to the field unless they are “persistent,” the statement said.
The NFL has been under fire for its head injury policies for years. First, wives of former players began coming forward with stories of their middle-aged husbands falling prey to dementia. Then came studies linking concussions to depression. And then there were the disturbing postmortems, which found extensive damage in the brains of young ex-players. Still, the NFL was slow to change, insisting that the studies were flawed and the dementia unrelated to football.
But this September, the NFL's own study on the long-term effect of concussions came to the same conclusions as those before it: Former players were much more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's or other memory disorders than the general public. The study relied on self-reports and had its shortcomings, but as Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, told the Times: "This is a game-changer."
Indeed, the chairmen of the NFL's committee on brain injuries, both of whom had consistently denied that concussions could cause long-term damage, stepped down last week. The guideline change soon followed.
The good news is that these guidelines will likely make waves far beyond the NFL. College and high school teams lack widespread concussion guidelines. This is especially worrisome in high school, where "getting your bell rung" is often considered more "badge of honor" than "medical emergency." With the granddaddy of football changing its tune, we may see coaches and trainers on every level taking concussions more seriously.
Stephanie Pappas is a guest blogger based in Houston, Texas, where the Friday night lights shine bright. She was formerly an intern for the Stanford School of Medicine Office of Communication and Public Affairs.