Knock It Off
Do you have a child who plays sports? Most kids do, these days. Soccer for kids has become virtually a right of passage. And football remains extremely popular. Then there’s hockey and all the rest of the contact sports.
These sports all have one thing in common: Sometimes players get knocked in the head. Repeatedly. Bouncing the ball off the forehead (“heading”) is actually a normal practice in soccer. And football obviously involves bodies crashing together. That’s why players wear helmets. To reduce the risk of head injuries.
In recent years there has been a growing awareness about the danger of concussions in sports. NFL players have sued the league over longterm brain injuries and neurological problems suffered while playing. And our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have underscored the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and other head injuries.
There’s an emerging consensus that having a concussion is dangerous. Organized sports have ramped up safety efforts in recognition of this inherent danger. Coaches and referees are trained now to identify kids who may have experienced concussion, and parents have been warned to take such events seriously.
But now evidence has emerged that even non-concussion-producing blows to the head may be harmful. These non-concussive blows can cause changes in the brain’s white matter, scientists have discovered, and could impact cognitive abilities. In fact, athletes with these changes did worse than expected on tests of memory and learning at the end of a contact-heavy playing season than subjects who were not involved in contact sports. And the poor test performance reflected measurable changes in players’ brain white matter. Even though none of the players sustained concussion. That’s something to keep in mind when your child asks to try out for the football team.
Thomas W. McAllister, James C. Ford, Laura A. Flashman, Arthur Maerlender, Richard M. Greenwald, Jonathan G. Beckwith, Richard P. Bolander, Tor D. Tosteson, John H. Turco, Rema Raman, and Sonia Jain. Effect of head impacts on diffusivity measures in a cohort of collegiate contact sport athletes. Neurology, 2013 DOI: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000438220.16190