Football concussions take deadly toll in H.S.

New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta shows that brain and spinal injuries kill about three high school or college football players every year.


A high school football game in Texas last month (Noelle Redman / Flickr CC)

The findings are based on data from 2005 through 2014, during which 28 players died from brain and spinal injuries they got while playing football.

Previous research had shown about the same number of deaths per year from football games. An annual average of 2.8 brain and spinal cord injury deaths for high school and college football during 2005–2014 is generally consistent with a previous report of 3.1 brain injury fatalities annually during 1990–2010.

Head first/head down contact was identified as contributing to eight of the 28 deaths. This emphasizes the importance of instruction in proper tackling techniques (both delivery and receipt of tackles) for all players, but particularly for running backs, linebackers, and defensive backs.

A previous evaluation of football tackling programs among youth league football players indicated a reduction in concussions in practice and games when education of coaches was combined with practice contact restrictions, providing evidence that these programs might have a positive impact on reducing nonfatal head injuries among youth league players. However, it is unclear whether older players who learned high risk methods can be retrained in new techniques.

Football is a collision sport played at high velocity, and players must act and react quickly. In such situations, new techniques might be difficult to deploy, resulting in players possibly reverting to past behaviors and reactions unless coaches routinely intervene to correct their technique.

Second impact syndrome

The report also showed a disturbing trend: 18 percent of high school players with fatal traumatic brain injuries had a concussion less than four weeks earlier. “This finding supports the importance of recognition, reporting, management, and adherence to recommended return-to-play protocols after a concussion,” the report’s authors noted.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws regulating concussion protocols for high school athletics, but those laws depend on athletes reporting their concussion symptoms effectively and immediately. “Medical professionals must be able to accurately assess symptom resolution and full recovery from the concussion before allowing an athlete to resume contact,” the report states.

“The availability of medical professionals onsite who are trained to recognize and act in emergency situations is critical in catastrophic football injury events,” authors continue. “Many schools employ certified athletic trainers, and for competitions, have emergency medical services onsite. However, nationally, 30 percent of public high schools do not have access to an athletic trainer, and 50 percent do not have athletic trainers present at practices.”

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