We’ve heard and read a good deal in recent years about the long-term impact of repeated concussions on the brains of professional football players. However, it’s not necessary to suffer a concussion to experience serious changes to the brain. Experts say that the delicate neurons in the brain can be damaged by repeated head injuries, even if none of these injuries rise to the level of a concussion.
Athletes in their teens and even younger are particularly susceptible to changes in their brains caused by injuries suffered in football and sports because their brains are still forming. A recently-published study by researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine looked at the brains of 25 males from 8 to 13 years old over a football season. Each boy had an MRI at the beginning and end of the season. They also wore special helmets while they were playing to determine how many blows to the head they suffered.
Researchers noted differences in their brains after the season that were so subtle that they likely wouldn’t have been spotted if they hadn’t had the before and after MRI comparisons. Not surprisingly, the more impacts to the head the players suffered, the more the white matter in the brain changed. These alterations in brain matter could impact everything from behavior to cognition for years to come.
The researchers are continuing to follow the brain changes of some of the players to see if additional changes occur in subsequent seasons of play and what impact they have on cognitive and other functions. Otherwise, as the chief of neuroradiology who led the study says, “We don’t know if they persist [or]….they go away.”
Many parents are already nervous about their kids being involved in football and other high-contact sports. However, as the head of the study points out, the risk of serious, long-term injury can be alleviated by “knowing the signs and symptoms of concussion and teaching them to children, so if they are injured on the field, they can get help from health professionals right away.”
Coaches and other adults who work with student-athletes have an obligation to take kids out of a game and evaluate them after a collision. They shouldn’t make kids feel that they’ll be punished if they self-report concerns about an injury. When they fail in those responsibilities, they may be able to be held liable.