On any given Saturday afternoon in America, thousands of kids are running around fields, gym floors and courts, chasing down a soccer ball, zinging a shot at the hockey net, or jockeying for possession of the pigskin.
Many of them will be tackled, bumped to the floor or smashed into a wall in their quest. Just how many of those seemingly innocent plays could result in brain injuries in the long run is anybody's guess. What is known is that physicians, coaches and parents have become hyper-vigilant to sports-related brain injuries after situations in which repeated blows to the head have been linked to the deaths and disabilities of high-profile professional athletes such as former New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau.
» Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) - A progressive, degenerative brain disease
"There has probably not been an increase in sports-related brain injuries, more likely that there is better recognition of the situation so coaches who hide their players' problems are at risk of sanctions," explains Joseph H. Friedman, MD, chief of movement disorders at Butler Hospital, who adds that additional research has people reporting blows to the head that were not previously considered important.
Brain injury refers to anything that damages the brain on a permanent basis. It can happen in any sport in which the participants suffer repeated blows to the head, Dr. Friedman say. Until recently, only those blows that caused a concussion - a disruption of normal brain function such as loss of consciousness, seeing stars, temporary confusion or loss of concentration – might cause permanent brain damage, but physicians are reevaluating that assessment.
"Obviously, sports in which people wear helmets, indicating a clear risk of head blows, are the ones with the greatest risk," he adds. "Boxing, football and hockey are the main culprits, but some authorities believe that heading a soccer ball might cause problems later on too."
The best way to prevent these injuries, Dr. Friedman says, is to reduce the likelihood of blows to the head in the sport by changing the rules of the games. In football, for example, new rules penalize tackles that involve the head. Organizations like the National Football League are calling for the creation of better protective equipment.
But better equipment might not be the answer, Dr. Friedman counters.
"Unfortunately, there is some data to indicate that the better the equipment, the more likely players are to increase the force of their contact which offsets any benefit," he explains, adding that avoiding more playing time after an injury would help more. "Hopefully, the knowledge of risk will improve oversight of these sports by coaches and parents. It is now routine to take a player out of action after a concussion, thus eliminating the chance of a second concussion in a short time."
If you would like more information about brain injury, go to: butler.org/news/RIILPartnership.cfm.