Head Trauma in High School Football Practices

An abstract presented today at the Radiological Society of North America annual conference found brain changes among high school football players across the course of a season, even in those who did not suffer a known concussion. This comes on the heels of a May study that found that exposure to football (years of play) had an independent effect on brain volume and a reduction in reaction time, that was was also found to be independent of concussion history.

If plain exposure to football is determined to have a meaningful negative impact on brain health, independent of concussion, that will be quite damning and hasten calls to end football. Further, this study focuses on boys 16-18 years of age, while most studies look at college or professional athletes.

Several notes about study methodology and why these findings are not definitive. The most recent study has no control group, so it is unclear how the brain measures taken vary in teenage boys. However, they describe a differential negative impact based on “heavy” versus “light” hitters as measured via in-helmet telemetry during practice (those with more cumulative hits had more negative effects; there is much more contact in practices than in games because games are only weekly). Second, this is an abstract only; the full paper is not available (Bill Gardner on the problems with discussion of studies in the media before publication).

I have written about the benefits of football. It is important to clearly document the costs, and especially to determine whether harm accrues in a linear fashion or whether there are threshold effects given a certain amount of exposure to football.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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