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Report finds brain injuries rising among high school football players

A new report from the University of North Carolina shows that catastrophic brain injuries among football players appear to be rising, especially among high school students. The Health Blog reports:

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.


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.

In the report (.pdf), researchers make several recommendations to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, serious brain injuries such as subdural hematomas. Their recommendations include:

  • Preseason physical examines for all participants. Identify during the physical exam those athletes with a history of previous brain or spinal injuries - including concussions.
  • Athletes must be given proper conditioning exercises that will strengthen their necks in order to be able to hold their heads firmly erect while making contact during a tackle or block. Strengthening of the neck muscles may also protect the neck from injury.
  • Coaches and officials should discourage the players from using their heads as battering rams when blocking, tackling, and ball carrying. The rules prohibiting spearing should be enforced in practice and games.
  • It is important, whenever possible, for a physician to be on the field of play during game and practice. When this is not possible, arrangements must be made in advance to obtain a physician's immediate services when emergencies arise.

Research is underway at Stanford to advance medical understanding of concussions in football. In that study, researchers equipped Stanford football players with high-tech mouthpieces to determine what types collisions cause concussions and whether there are any positions or plays associated with a greater risk of traumatic brain injuries.

Previously: Study suggests teens are more vulnerable to effects of sport-related concussions, Should parents worry about their kids playing football? and A conversation with Daniel Garza about football and concussions
Photo by bamakodaker

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