Science-- there's something for everyone

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Football players may have overlooked head injuries


Football players are well known to be at risk for concussion. For this reason, players are routinely screened for signs of concussion after receiving blows to the head. Athletes who do not display the classic signs of concussion (dizziness, confusion, vision problems, slurred speech, or loss of consciousness) are cleared to continue playing. However, Thomas Talavage and his colleagues from Purdue University have discovered that many athletes who don’t display the usual concussion symptoms are in fact suffering from brain injury.

The researchers outfitted twenty-one high school football players with helmets containing accelerometers to measure the degree of impacts they suffered. Eleven of the boys suffered high numbers of impacts or one or more unusually hard impact and were subsequently evaluated for brain injury, using both MRI and cognitive tests. Of these 11, only three were diagnosed with concussion based on their symptoms. Four other boys who were not diagnosed with concussions, and thus would have been okayed for further play, nevertheless displayed serious brain deficits. In other words, a significant number of football players could be playing despite suffering from brain injury. Personally, I wonder whether James Eckner’s concussion stick could identify these players.

Based on the accelerometer data, the athletes who did not display any of the trademarks of concussion yet were suffering from brain impairment were the ones who received a disproportionate number of blows to the top and front of the head. These data could be used to determine recovery times for players who have been hit, as well as to design more protective helmets.

A diagram of the forces on the brain in concussion.

Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator